Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Rat Lady

‘Hello there can you move your bag please so I can sit down you’ll never guess what happened to me last night I was out dancing down the Limit and this man quite young actually probably in his thirties I’d say came up to me and said was I was a Sagittarius and I said no I’m not a Sagittarius I’m a Virgo not a Sagittarius and he said he found that hard to believe and I said that’s rude because it is rude isn’t it just coming up to somebody you don’t know and saying that but anyway I danced with him a little bit and then he asked if he could buy me a drink and I said I suppose so although I already had a drink in my hand but he was nice you know and I wanted to keep him talking didn’t I but anyway he bought me a drink and then he said he had to go to the toilet which I thought was a bit naff seeing as he trying to chat me up well it is isn’t it but anyway I’m sitting there like a lemon waiting for him to come back from the toilet when this woman comes up to me and she’s I don’t know mid-thirties too I guess didn’t look too good she was wearing stuff from last year and I just looked at her and thought that’s last year’s fashion why are you still wearing that for but anyway she says “’scuse me” she says yeah she says “’scuse me I don’t mean to interfere but I think you should know that that man that you’ve just been dancing with is married!” yeah married that’s what she said imagine so anyway she says “I hope you don’t think I’m sticking my nose in but I just thought you should know” sort of thing and I said “no of course I don’t you were right to tell me” because she was wasn’t she you should tell people things like that so anyway he comes back from the toilet and I’d finished both my drinks by then and he says how was I getting home and if I liked I could share a taxi with him and I said “naaaaah I don’t think so” and he said “why not we both live the same way” because I’d been silly enough to tell him where I lived or thereabouts but I said “no I won’t be going home with you because I happen to know you’re married” and he says “I’m not!” and I says “you are and I know you are” and he says “I am not honestly I am not” and I just went “YEANEEUGHH! not married” because he looked married because you can tell when someone’s married can’t you yeah you just can when you think about it and he’s trying it on and saying he’s not married NEEAAAGGHH! so anyway…’

It was the Rat Lady. That’s what I called her anyway. I saw her every morning on the bus. She got on several stops after me when the bus drove through the estate, just before it crossed over the river and into the city centre, which was where everybody on that bus got off to go to wherever they worked. I had been in my job six months, which I got not too long after graduating from university. I was lucky - most of the other people I knew from uni hadn’t been able to walk into anything this good, or this permanent. Event management. A lot of organisation, working with people, dealing with professionals, and I’d already being entrusted with some big budgets to play around with. It was everything I’d wanted while I was slumming it on that stupid degree. They weren’t exactly impressed by my qualifications: a disappointing 2:2 in an irrelevant subject, but I really shone at the interview. I showed that I’d done my homework; I knew exactly what the job would involve, that I was professional and that I really wanted it, but not desperate or needy. Also, I made sure I looked just right. My hair pinned back, just the right amount of makeup, and I wore a very good outfit, with the skirt short enough to look just that bit sexy. Not tarty, but sexy. And it was the sort of company who would want to be represented by sexy people. It was unsaid, of course, but it was obvious.

That morning though, I was feeling rough. You could probably say it was unprofessional of me to come into work in that state, hung over with barely an hour’s sleep the night before. I’d been out clubbing, but I went back with a bloke to his place and didn’t leave until after four, which left me just over three hours to get back home, some sleep, a shower, up and about and on the bus to be into work for half-eight. I was shattered, and I wished I could phone in sick, but today was important. This was a big contract we were working on, and we had to pull out all the stops if we were going to impress. Me taking a sicky that day was not an option.

OK, going back to that bloke’s place just for a drunken shag that I really didn’t enjoy and barely even remembered a couple of hours later was definitely stupid. Not just because of my job, but because of what was going on in the city back then. I wish I had been as frightened as everybody else. I should have been, looking back on it. I can’t remember if I’d even read the details back then. I’ve gone over them enough since.

There had already been two murders. Two girls, both not much younger than me, had been killed in alleyways in the club district. They’d both been stabbed in the neck by a two-pronged instrument, possibly a gardening tool, although the police hadn’t been able to work out exactly what. The girls hadn’t been robbed, or raped, just killed for no apparent reason. There were marks on their arms which suggested there’d been a struggle, but other than that, there was no evidence that would throw light on what had happened, much less lead to the killer. No DNA or forensics. No witnesses. Nobody had even heard any screams, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering how noisy it is round there.

But I was still young enough to think I was indestructible. Confident, certainly. Arrogant, probably. Still, I’d kept myself safe in the past, and up until then, things had gone my way pretty much all of the time. I didn’t realise that was far more down to luck than any skill on my part. And I suppose I was drunk on my success. I mean, looking back it was obviously only a little job with a fairly reasonable wage, but after three years of starving as a student I thought I was a real high flyer. Actually being able to spend money and it not matter was really exciting. So I partied. Quite a damn lot. My body could stand it, and so could my bank balance. And it wasn’t just me: all the girls at work were like that. It was just part of the culture at that place.

That morning on the bus though, my body seemed to be telling me I’d pushed it to its limit. And right then, one thing I didn’t need was the Rat Lady. I called her that because of the way she scurried about, her long nose pushed forward like she was sniffing for cheese. What she was really looking for was a spare seat next to someone by themselves, who she could then perch next to and engage in conversation, whether they looked like they wanted it or not. Not even a bag placed on the seat next to you could save you. She’d just ask you to move it. I say conversation, but it was all one-way: a monologue really. The other person might say ‘right’, or ‘oh really,’ but she never stopped long enough for them to get a sentence out or, if they tried, she’d just talk over them. After a minute or so they usually zoned out, but she never seemed to notice. At first I presumed the people she talked to were people she knew from her estate, but gradually I realised, frighteningly, that they weren’t. They were just random people who were unlucky enough to have a spare space by them. This meant that, one day, she was probably going to pick me.

She was a very strange, disturbing and, no doubt, disturbed woman. Firstly, she was very odd to look at. I couldn’t tell her age precisely but I suspected mid-forties. Spindly, with shoulders hunched as if they were pulled forward by her seat-hunting nose. On her face were big black-framed glasses with lenses I could tell were about as thick as they got. She must have been nearly blind. Like a mole. Or a sewer rat. She carried her hands in front of her chest, her horrible thin fingers wiggling as she stalked between the seats. Her skin was dark, but I could tell it was cheap fake tan. And besides the goggle-mole eyes and pointed nose, there were her teeth. Crooked things, which stuck out over her bottom lip at an angle. No, even with all the will in the world, I could not say that she was a pretty picture.

Beside the way she looked, there were more strange things about her. For instance, there was her habit of dropping in weird noises into her conversation. She’d be talking about someone off the telly and she’d say something like, ‘and she says she hasn’t had a boob job NEEEURRRGH! Hasn’t had a boob job indeed NAAGGH!’ Usually the noises were used to express disbelief or disgust, but occasionally they didn’t seem to mean anything at all, as if her urge to communicate was such she had to make a sound of some kind even though she had nothing to say: at least, nothing that could be expressed with words.

Not that she ever seemed to want to talk about anything important, or if she did there would never be any rational thought involved. She just had no quality control, so she’d come out with things like:‘I don’t like to shop in Tesco because all the food I’ve bought there has been grey I bought some salmon there once and it was grey so I don’t like to shop there no…’ Or: ‘there are some countries I wouldn’t mind if we went to war with like the Chinese because I don’t really like Chinese people so if we went to war with them it wouldn’t bother me so much about them getting killed but if we went to war with Spain I wouldn’t like that because I’ve met some Spanish people and they were very nice so I’d be thinking no don’t bomb them they’re nice…’

The most hideous thing about the Rat Lady, though, was her obsession with sex. Not only was she addicted to following the sex lives of celebrities in the gossip mags but, pretty much every day, she had a new story about some adventure she’d had where someone had tried to pick her up. Apparently she went clubbing several times a week; like me I guess, and like me, had to fend off quite a few men each night. But I have to admit, unlike me, she never ended up in bed with any of them; she just collected their phone numbers. She always waited for them to ring first though, she said. It was scarcely believable: that this quite bizarre-looking woman would attract that much interest, at least of the good kind, especially considering the coolness of some of the clubs she said she hung out in. But, several times a week, there she was on the bus, with a new story of all the attention she’d been getting, overexcited just by talking about it.

Not only was she a big hit in the clubs, her day-to-day activities were oozing with sex. Prostitutes were everywhere she looked, while perverts and potential rapists stood on every corner. ‘I was walking in the park yesterday I was and this man came up to me and he was crouching on the ground “what are you doing?” I said and I looked down and he was taking photos up my skirt with his phone “GERROFFAYUGH!’ I said and I said “I catch you doing that again I’ll report you it’s rude” I did that’s what I said anyway and he looked embarrassed and ran off…’ Even though she’d been violated in that way she seemed to be enjoying telling people about it.

The bus arrived at the city centre and we all got off. ‘Ok well anyway I’ll talk to you again some time next time I see on the bus probably ok bye yeah ok bye!’ The Rat Lady scampered away to whatever job, she had: cleaning or something, most likely. I dragged myself into the office and managed to survive the day without letting on how bad I was feeling. One of my superiors saw how pale I was and said something like ‘Good night last night, then?’ and winked, but I wasn’t letting it affect my performance so he didn’t make an issue of it. There was no Rat Lady on the bus back home; there never was, and thank Christ, because by the end of the day I was so tired, if I’d had to listen to her I would probably have ended up throttling the woman.

The next morning my nightmare came true. I was still tired, and I wasn’t even thinking about the Rat Lady. I was looking out the window, with my handbag on the seat, when I felt a long bony finger poking me in the arm. ‘Excuse me would you mind moving your bag so I can sit down please thank you I’ve seen you on the bus before quite a lot of times actually that’s a nice coat it’s this year’s fashion sometimes you see people out in clothes that were from last year and you think why are you wearing that for it’s from last year NUERGHAH! but that coat is nice very nice yes…’ I was petrified. Of course she was scarily strange, but there was also something about her that made me feel invaded. Not only was she intruding on my personal space, with her thin fingers wiggling nearly right underneath me, but I could tell she wanted something from me as well. It was just impossible to tell what.

The monologue continued: ‘…sometimes you go out to a club dancing and you see girls there dressed in nearly nothing at all and they look disgusting NUUURGH! like they’re prostitutes no wonder men get carried away with girls like that walking about flashing their bits and stuff well you’re going to aren’t you it’s just not fair making men excited like that and then they start hitting on decent women like me and they’ll be all forward expecting me to go back to their places with them and they don’t even like to put it in a lot of the time a lot of the time they just do it on your face well they do don’t they it’s disgusting EEOORGH! but like I said It’s no surprise with girls walking around with their bits all hanging out but I’m sure you’re not like that are you walking about with your bits hanging out and wearing last year’s fashions NOAGHAH! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!’

And then she was silent. I had been trying not to look at her but I could not help but see that she was looking intently at me with her near-blind eyes glowering through her big thick glasses. ‘But you’re not like that are you?’ she said quietly, ‘You’re up to date aren’t you? You’re wearing this year’s fashions. And your bits. They’re not… hanging out.’ Her wiggling fingers were now still and, to my horror, I now saw that the bony hand was reaching up towards my face, which it began to caress. I wanted to scream.

‘Oh the other night I had some fun I went to the Limit and it was student night and the student boys were dancing with me and they wouldn’t let me go home “one more dance! one more dance!” they kept on saying but I said “I have to go to work tomorrow! you have to let me go!” but they kept on saying “one more dance! one more dance!” oh it was funny…’ The monologue had started again and the hand had dropped. The bus drove into the city centre shelter a few moments later and I was free, with the Rat Lady giving her usual parting words, ‘…ok well anyway I’ll talk to you again some time next time I see on the bus probably ok bye yeah ok bye!’

It was Friday. I really should have stayed in that night. But Friday nights was the best night to go to the Academy. They had proper club DJs there that night: no student shit or seventies nostalgia. Besides, all the girls from work were going. I didn’t want to let them know that I’d rather spend that Friday night in. Worse still, I’d made the mistake of moving in with one of them, so I couldn’t even pretend to be somewhere else. So I got myself ready. Plenty of slap. Slingbacks. A pink vest top and matching miniskirt. Wonderbra and thong underneath. I suppose you could say in the Rat Lady’s terms, my bits were hanging out. But it was the Academy. It’s what it was all about. Problem it was January. And it was literally freezing. The pavements were glazed in a layer of ice. That year the coat to have when going out was a fake fur gilet, but I could tell it wouldn’t keep me warm enough even in the taxi. I would have to wear something else, even if the Rat Lady would disapprove. Not that she’d be there. They’d never let her in the Academy.

I looked in my wardrobe. The only thing I could find that would keep me warm other than my coat for work (and I certainly wasn’t going to wear that), was a long, puffy, full-length coat with a hood from the year before. Nobody wore them anymore. Definitely last year’s fashion. BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!

Sasha, my flatmate, had called a taxi. ‘You ready?’ she shouted from the hall, as the taxi beeped its horn in the street. My hand still hovered over the coat. I really didn’t want to wear it. But I could feel the cold in the flat, even with the central heating on full blast. I knew that outside it would be utterly biting. I grabbed the coat and put it on. So I’m wearing an unfashionable coat, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m good-looking: great hair, good teeth and nice boobs. Nobody’s going to be turned off by my coat. Not that I was out to pick anybody up that night. I just wanted to have fun with the girls. But getting the boys all worked up was part of that fun. Yet in my mind I kept on hearing the words of the Rat Lady. She was in there now on a loop and I couldn’t get her out. ‘Last year’s fashion! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!’

We got in the taxi.

‘Haven’t seen that coat before,’ said Sasha, ‘It’s not new is it?’


‘No, it’s not. Had it a while.’

‘Yeah, I thought you couldn’t get those anymore.’

I had to spend the rest of the taxi ride pretending I didn’t want to stab her.

We met up with the rest of the girls at a bar before going on to the club. Nobody mentioned the coat but I could tell they were thinking about it.

It was a relief to finally get to the Academy and lose that stupid coat in the cloakroom. The attendant didn’t say anything, but when she took it, she looked at it like it was caked in shit or something. Again, I heard the words of the Rat Lady: ‘That’s last year’s fashion! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGHAH!’

I forgot about it all, of course, as soon as I got inside and had a drink. The Academy was the best club in the city by a mile. The best DJs, the best décor, and everybody looked amazing. It wasn’t dark and dingy like a lot of clubs, but creamy white. It was a very sexy place to be. And after the second drink and the first dance, the night began to speed up in that way they do, once fun and alcohol are involved. Some of the girls took a pill and so did I. Nothing major.

More drinks, more dancing. By half-eleven I was smoking cigarettes, even though I don’t normally smoke. Some guy offered me one. He was cute: very cute. We talked a bit, although neither of us could really hear what the other was saying over the music, and I found myself taking his hand on the dance floor. We danced for about twenty minutes, then we went to sit in a booth and we kissed. Some more drinks. I went to talk to my mates for a bit and he went to talk to his, although we didn’t really want to, it was just so we could both look cool and not too desperate. All I talked about was him, anyway.

A little dance with the girls, a whole pack of boys around us. And then I went to the loo, making a note of where he was so I could bump into him again on the way back. I did, and we kissed again. Somehow, although it wasn’t really discussed as such, we reached an understanding that we were going to go back to my place. I know, it’s dreadful, second one in a week and everything, but it just felt right. Anyway, I’d hardly got any in my last year of uni because I was studying so hard, so I figured I’d earned myself a bit of fun. I went to find the girls and told Sasha that we were thinking of heading off, and she was welcome to share the taxi with us. She said no, it was fine; she’d probably stay over with one of the other girls anyway.

We went to leave the club, holding hands, kissing lightly, quickly, often. As we headed for the cloakroom I had a dreadful, drunken thought. What about the coat? Would he think it was funny that I was wearing one from last year that absolutely no one wears anymore? I was even going to apologise as the attendant handed it back, even more disgusted than when she took it, but he didn’t care. He was looking at my tits as we walked out and only stopped when I had to button the coat up. Even after all the alcohol and the dancing, the cold was unbearable.

‘Ah shit,’ he said, suddenly, stopping us in our tracks.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said. It’s not the coat is it, I thought?

‘Listen, I lent my phone to one of my mates so he could send a text. I forgot to get it back off him. Can you wait here a second while I try and get back in and get it? Shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got my hand stamped. I’ll only be a minute.’

‘No, not at all. Go for it.’

‘Sweet.’ He kissed me hard then ran back in.

I waited. Five minutes. No sign of him. Shit! I thought. He’s just dumped me here in the frigging cold. I was going to go in after him and have words, but I thought, no, that would look pathetic. I decided to call my friends inside and ask them if they could see him. I just hoped that one of them would be able to feel their phone vibrate through their handbags.

I couldn’t get a signal. Great. I walked further up the street a bit hoping to pick one up. I passed the alleyway next to the club. I got one for a second, then lost it. I walked back a few steps and found it again, but it was intermittent. It seemed the closer I got to the alleyway, the stronger it got. I don’t know, I guess I wasn’t thinking, I was very drunk, and I was very pissed off, but even so, there is no way to explain how I could be so stupid as to do what I did next. I stepped into that alleyway.

I got a constant signal. Great. Then, just as I was scrolling down my address book, I heard something behind me. A rustling noise, as if something was going through a bin. And on top of that, a scraping. I didn’t want to turn around. There was something truly, truly horrible about those sounds. I wasn’t that far down the alleyway, but whatever it was must have been between me and the street. It was stupid, so very stupid, but I was so scared. And that’s why I put one foot in front of the other and began to run as fast as I could down the alley.

I could see now that it didn’t lead anywhere, just the back wall of some property. I was trapped. The rustling was still behind me, closer now. And the scraping was louder, more intense. I carried on, knowing that I could go nowhere. I ran until there was nowhere further to run. I knew I would have to turn round. After all, I reasoned, it could be nothing to be scared of - an urban fox perhaps, or a cat. Or a rat.

I couldn’t turn round. I just couldn’t. But I couldn’t move forward either. And then, I felt them. Those bony fingers were on my shoulder, picking at my coat, feeling the fabric, while her long nose sniffed my hood, right by my ear. Her other hand was under my coat, its wiggling fingers feeling my skirt, my legs, my thong, then crawling up to my chest, examining my cleavage, my bra.

‘I thought you were nice,’ she said quietly, ‘I thought you were a nice girl who covered herself up and wore this year’s fashions. But you’re not. You’re a dirty girl who lets all her bits hang out and gets men all excited so they bother women like me and do it on our faces and you do it wearing…’ She paused. The scraping began again. ‘…last year’s fashion! NEUGGHHAH! BLAAGH! BLAGGH! BLAGHH!’

The grip loosened. I turned around. There stood the Rat Lady. She was wearing some tatty clubbing outfit with sequins and straps. It looked terrible on her. Her mouth was open wide: so wide, in fact, it pushed the top of her head back further than heads are meant to go, as what looked like two long poles slid out of the top of her mouth. I realised then that they were her two top front teeth. It was these that made the scraping sound as they grew and grew. Meanwhile her fingers wiggled away frantically beneath them.

I stepped out of my shoes and ran. Behind me I heard an ear-splitting shriek and the clackety-clack of her feet on the concrete. She still had her party shoes on. I was halfway back up the alleyway when she caught up with me and forced me against the wall. Her teeth were by now about two foot long. I knew as she held my throat and opened her mouth I was going to die.

Someone called my name. The guy I’d been snogging ran down the alley towards us, shouting: ‘Get off her!’ In an instant, the Rat Lady let go and shot past him and into the night, moving faster than anything I’d seen before. So fast, in fact, that to this day I cannot tell if I truly glimpsed a tail, or whether I imagined it.

‘Are you all right?’ he said.

‘No,’ I replied, and cried, as he held me and mumbled something about his friend leaving the phone in a toilet cubicle and having to go to the manager’s office to collect it.

I told the police as much as I thought they’d believe: that I was attacked by a woman I had seen before; gave details of where she got on and off, and told them that any passenger on that bus would be able to tell them about her. Apparently the police were on that bus the next morning, although I was not there, and neither was the Rat Lady.

I never saw the Rat Lady again, and neither did anybody else on that morning bus route. I quit my job soon after, and have been living a much quieter life since. In fact, I work from home now, and don’t tend to go out unless I have to. I live on my own. I guess I’m a bit of a hermit. Something like the Rat Lady doesn’t ever really leave you. I still hear her voice, and feel her touch, every time I get dressed to go out: ‘Last year’s fashion! BLAGGH! BLAGGH! BLAGGAH!’

Two months after that night, several years ago now, the heaviest rainfall in many years caused the river to burst its banks and the sewers to briefly overflow. Corpses of rats were seen floating down the road by clubbers as they stepped out into the street, looking in vain for a taxi amidst the water. When it subsided, under a sewer grate, they found the body of a middle-aged woman. She was wearing a sequined dress, and a high-heeled shoe was still on one foot. Nobody could say how she had got there, or who she was. Her face had been almost entirely eaten by rats. It was about that time that, finally, the killings stopped.

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Man Who Drew the Brook

I was ambling cross-country alone, as I often did on the infrequent days I could free myself from my business affairs. I found that doing so cleansed my head of the petty concerns of the city. On this particular walk, I was venturing into an area I was unfamiliar with, in a county I had previously visited only intermittently, deep in the countryside and far from any town or A-road.

I had been following a brook a while, crossing over at the footbridge marked on my map, when I saw him. He stood in front of me on the ruddy path a way ahead, facing the water, evidently sketching what was before him in a little notebook. My heart leapt, as it always did, at the sight of artistic activity. I could make out that he was not young, but perhaps not as old as me, and he certainly had the look of someone for whom life had not been easy. Even at a distance, I could tell that the skin on his face and hands was coarse and brown; hardened it seemed, by the wind and rain like an old jacket. On his head was an artist’s beret, which would have been a laughable affectation for a man so evidently absorbed in creative pursuits, were it not as water-damaged and creased as its owner. His clothes were shoddy and inappropriately thin for the time of year, and clung tautly to his thin limbs and torso in the wind.

Something told me this man was more than an average Sunday painter. Yet, as I drew closer, I could see that the notebook he was using was not that of a professional artist, but one of ring-bound writing paper, complete with lines and margin, that soaked in the drizzle of the murky day. His pen, meanwhile, was not designed for drawing, but a fat novelty biro, which had the capacity to change between four different tubes of colour ink at the click of a switch.

Although his choice of materials was poor, however, I could not help but look over his shoulder as I passed and greeted him in the country way. I received no reply. Nevertheless, what I saw, out of the corner of my eye, intrigued me. So much so, in fact, that I felt compelled to pause and, while hoping I did not offend him in doing so, absorb the image further. There was certainly grace in his use of line, and even limited to a very basic palette of red, blue, green and black, the subtlety with which he used these elements to capture the atmosphere of the day was startling. But not only that, there was something more, a definite sense of confidence, of vision even, absolutely embedded in every stroke of the drawing. I found, much to my surprise, that I was deeply touched by it. A surge of aesthetic pleasure washed over me as I stood there, a feeling of intense spirituality that I have so rarely encountered. It was the elevation one feels when confronted by nature at its most sublime, yet here embedded within a work of art far more impressive than the dull real-life counterpart of mossy bank and muddy stream that it depicted.

Even as I stood there gazing upon it, the drawing was already smudging in the rain, disintegrating even as the artist put in the finishing touches. I knew that I had to buy it off of him before it disappeared forever.

As I reached for my wallet, hoping that the handful of notes and change would be sufficient, a voice from behind called a name that I could not make out. The man turned round and looked straight past me, unconcerned by, and perhaps even unaware of my presence. I too turned to see a second man beckoning and calling from the top of the verge that led down to the bank. The moment slipping away, I tried to engage the artist in order to make my acquisition. He did not seem to hear me, however. Instead, he turned back towards the brook, and did something that nearly caused me to faint in shock. He tore the drawing from his notebook, ripping it savagely in the process, then rolled it into a ball in one hand, and threw it with gusto. It arced high, and I could only watch as gravity took hold and drew it, inexorably, into the water below.

I would have dived after it, but the current was far too strong, and so I did not have the power to do a thing as I saw it carried downstream and out of view. The man meanwhile, had marched past me at speed, his thin legs and long step carrying him swiftly up the verge and over the peak.

I had to follow him. I found the verge much harder going than he did, and nearly slipped over backwards in the mud more than once. By the time I had mounted it, the man and his companion were already halfway across a meadow, the other side of which was an outlying row of houses belonging to a hamlet evidently of quite ancient origin.

I tried to run after them, but it was no good. My confidence in the terrain was nowhere as strong as theirs, evidently local as they were, and my joints were not as supple as they once had been. I was careful, however, to observe where they headed, and was delighted to find that upon quitting the meadow, they entered a house immediately ahead.

I knocked on the door through which they had entered several minutes later. There was no answer at first, but on knocking again, the door was opened by the second man. He did not seem pleased to be interrupted, but nevertheless heard me out as I explained that I was someone who had an interest in art, and I desired very much to see whatever works by his companion he may have stored within the house.

He told me bluntly that it would not be possible. He said the other man was his brother, but that he was simple, and not capable of producing anything that would be of interest to anybody but himself. He said there was nothing to show me.

I begged to differ, and told him that in my opinion, the work that I had seen was of the very highest quality, and that I would very much like the opportunity of seeing more.

The man laughed, and said that if that were really the case, then I had best put on my wading gear. His brother’s only subject was the brook, which he drew every day at the same spot. Then, as I had observed, when called home for his evening meal every evening, he would duly tear his work from his pad, roll it into a ball and throw it into the very water that was his subject.

I could not believe that this was occurring. Every day, a magnificent work was produced with the crudest of tools, and every day, it was destroyed. I pleaded with the brother to assist me in preserving one of the drawings, and though he was extremely reluctant at first, when I revealed the amount of money from which I was willing to part in exchange for it, he finally agreed.

I booked a room at the nearest inn. The next morning, the artist’s brother led me to a shallow and thin part of the brook where the discarded artworks would often collect, forming a sort of ineffectual dam that he would clear every so often. I was hoping that some of the drawings would have miraculously survived their watery journey, but this was not the case. They were all hopelessly smudged, one colour bleeding into another, with only the vaguest ghost of the original image remaining.

By the time we returned, he had already taken his place at the brook. I watched him as he drew, spellbound as he captured the scene in front of him, embodying perfectly the qualities of the day in his strokes. The result was an image so utterly different from the one of the day before, despite having the very same subject, viewed from the exact same angle. It made me think of Monet and his haystacks, or Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire, their repeated motifs containing the potential for infinite variation. Yet this, I felt, went beyond that. While Monet succeeded in capturing the ephemeral moments of time, and Cezanne the changing perspectives created by the movement of the eye and body, this man, this simple, innocent man, untouched by any notion of art or maybe even civilisation, was capable of documenting his entire experience of a single day in one image. It was all there somehow, every aspect that defined that day’s utter uniqueness from the billions of days that had preceded it, and all those still to come. Not with the pedantic camera-like quality of a savant, but with what I can only describe as the spiritual insight of a true artist. As I observed the drawing emerge in front of me, I could come to only one conclusion. This man was a genius.

I began to feel my nerves play on me as we approached the onset of evening. Soon his brother would be here, and the act we had agreed upon would have to be committed. It was not without disturbing implications, but I had already justified it to myself as a necessary and even ultimately humane procedure, however cruel and brutal it might seem in the immediate present, that would open up this poor individual to communion with the outside world.

The moment arrived. As the sky entered its first phase of darkening, the brother appeared at the top of the verge, as he had done every day for who knows how many years. Yet this time he did not call to his sibling. Instead, he made his way down without drawing attention to himself, as quietly as he could on such slippery ground. Meanwhile, the artist’s attention remained fixed on the brook while, at his brother’s signal, I assumed my pre-agreed position, edging towards him softly, quietly, until I was mere inches away. His brother did the same, creeping up behind him, until he too, was as close as I.

We nodded, and burst into action. The brother locked the artist in a bear hug, while I made a grab for his notebook. Even as the air was pressed out of his lungs, and with his legs flailing as they left the ground, the artist held on with surprising vigour. As I saw the real pain in his eyes, I almost abandoned my plan then and there and leave him to his strange ritual. But I had seen the quality of the drawing that day, that it was indeed for the ages, and knew that it was my duty to save it.

Finally, as his fingers slid from the corner, I had the notebook fully in my hand. The top page on which he had drawn had creased in the struggle, but thankfully it had not torn. I clambered up the verge with as much haste as I could muster, while the brother held on firmly as the artist wriggled within his grasp. Looking briefly over my shoulder, I could see that he was suffering considerable distress as his day’s offering to the water spirit disappeared out of his sight, and it pained me to know that I was the immediate cause. Yet I had no choice, I felt, but to harden my heart to it, in order to improve this poor individual’s lot in the long term.

The following day, I returned to London with the drawing, and took it to show a friend of mine who ran a small gallery in Cork Street. He too, was not only impressed, but also deeply moved by the sheer power of the drawing. He immediately expressed a desire to represent the artist and drew up and signed a standard contract, which he earnestly requested that I present to him. I promised that I would endeavour to secure the signature of the artist’s brother, who was his full legal guardian. This meant that not only could he sign on his behalf, but was also the immediate receiver of any earnings from sales. There would be no option but to entrust him, should he accept the proposal, with ensuring the money was invested wisely and well. I myself was offered a modest finder’s fee, which I accepted, if only to cover the extra travel costs I now found myself incurring as I pursued this new undertaking. I would of course, have happily bankrupted myself in order to realise it, such was my total admiration of the man’s work.

Meanwhile, I chose not to sell my drawing to the dealer, but instead hung on to it, and, after selecting an appropriately simple card frame, gave it pride of place on the wall of my study. There it emanated a field of wellbeing, a thorough enrichment of my daily life, which I could sense even when I was not looking at it. Its mere presence was enough.

Once I had completed some business in London, I returned at the earliest opportunity to the obscure hamlet where the artist resided. There, after explaining the contract to his brother and acquiring his signature, I went down to the brook where the master had already begun his day’s work. Awkwardly, I apologised for the violence of the earlier day, and presented him with a set of artist’s crayons, along with a sketchbook of high-quality drawing paper. At first he did not acknowledge me directly, or even seem overtly aware of my presence, much less take my gifts. I took it upon myself, however, to make my own sketch on the first page of the book, using the crayons, and soon, as I expected, I had caught his eye. He studied what I was doing intently, as if his mind was absorbed in calculations that would reveal the potential of this mysterious new medium. I began to explain what I was doing as I worked, but there seemed to be no response or even recognition of my words. Only the marks on the paper agitated any expression.

Finally, I turned the page over and offered him the book, but could not persuade him to take it. I did, however, find that he would accept the crayons, if I were to offer them to him one by one. And so I passed them over individually, and he would apply subtle touches to his existing pen drawing with each shade. Some he passed back without using at all, immediately understanding that they would add nothing. The crayons he did use, however, he used expertly, grasping their qualities even as he held them in his hand. He applied them with the exact amount of pressure required, and at the angle needed in order to achieve the desired thickness of stroke.

Again, I dreaded the approaching end of the working day. The inevitable appearance of his brother over the verge made me feel sick, and I was seized by an intense desire to tell the artist to run. But I did not, and instead I repeated my role from before, and collaborated in the confiscation of his art. This I would do at exactly the same time over the next four days. I hoped that after a while the artist would come to expect it, and make the whole unfortunate business easier on myself, but sadly this was not to be. Each day it seemed to come as a surprise to him, and each day he struggled.

Returning to London, once having obtained the small batch of works my dealer friend had requested, I could not help but wish that the artist could be left alone for awhile, and pursue his strange ritual in peace. After all, any artist has a right to discard some of his work, at least. But a week later, I received a package from his brother. It contained a full week’s worth of drawings he had managed to seize by himself. I suspected that I would be receiving a similar package on a regular basis from that point on, and I was not wrong.

Meanwhile, the first works had gone on display in the gallery, on sale for a modest sum at first. The amount demanded for each work was quickly raised, however, as word spread around the capital about these strange but incredibly beautiful drawings, each superficially the same, but all so obviously different. Without my even having time to fully comprehend it, as my attention was drawn to other affairs, my friend found his gallery to be the unexpected host of a sensation. The works were being snapped up as fast as the artist’s brother could deliver them. Crucially, this was not, it seemed, because they were viewed as an investment, as is so often the case, but because once seen, those who could afford to felt compelled to purchase. It was as if they possessed some mysterious quality that answered a need in the viewer that, up until that point, none of them knew they had.

I was committed to business outside the country for a month. Yet even in the remote location I was obliged to travel to, news reached me of the excitement surrounding the gallery and its mysterious new talent. So that the artist could work peacefully, my dealer friend had given him a one word, two syllable pseudonym. While prices soared through the roof, magazine writers unsuccessfully tried to locate the source. Many members of the public claimed to recognise the location depicted, but all were proved wrong when no artist appeared at the places they named. Meanwhile, a major London show of the works was being planned, with a tour of major European and American cities to follow.

As for myself, although I knew for certain that by sharing these drawings with the world, I had enabled a great spiritual gift to be given, I was still uneasy about the violent method required to separate the art from the artist. Visions of his anguished face haunted my nocturnal thoughts, making sleep impossible. Yet surely, I reasoned, he must have adjusted to the process by now. Perhaps knowledge of the happiness he brought to others had filtered through, and the giving of the drawings was now a joyful business for him that enriched his previously barren existence. Perhaps, but then, perhaps not. Upon my return to England, I knew that I must visit him again, if only to try and allay my own troubled conscience.

What I found, there on the bank of the brook, offered me no comfort. His brother, already living in significantly improved circumstances, no longer bothered with the collection of the drawings himself. Instead, the job was now left to those I must describe as hired thugs: two smirking bullies, who performed their duties without sensitivity or respect. The artist, meanwhile, wore the same thin, ragged clothes he wore on the day I first met him, and his demeanour had grown pitiful. He looked grey from torment, and shook terribly as the end of the day drew near. His eyes were unbearably haunted with a terrible sadness. And it was with those eyes that, for the first time, he seemed to acknowledge my presence as I stood before him, dumbly watching as he was manhandled by men who were not fit to tie his shoe. My shame overwhelmed me, and though I had planned to stay for one more day, I had to leave then.

I fell into the most depressed state, appalled at my own instrumental part in this repeating tragedy I was now powerless to prevent. I did not leave my house for some weeks, and let my business affairs be handled by ungifted subordinates. And it was in my house, alone, hoping for some forgiveness from an undefined quarter, that I received the telephone call from the wretched brother. His hired goons had found the artist absent from his usual spot that evening, as they had arrived to perform their despicable task. Alarmed, they searched the area, to no immediate avail. Finally, hours later, they had found him. There he lay, in the water, further upstream, where it became shallow and thin, and the drawings used to form their little dam, in the days before. Now his body did the same, his arms caught on one bank, one of his legs on the other. They said that in his hand was his final drawing, rolled into a ball, slightly damaged but still basically intact. The brother wanted to know if it would sell for more than the others, considering its novelty, and of the likely rise in value of any unsold stock, now that the supply had been discontinued.

I put the phone down, and damned him to hell. I went to my study, which I had not dared to enter since my return, and looked at the wall, where the drawing I had seized an eternity ago still hung. It offered me no solace. Its power was lost. It was as dead as the hand that drew it, and I tore it from the wall in despair.

Following his death, the artist was soon forgotten, even by those who had felt compelled to purchase his work on sight not so long before, their possession having simply ceased to give them pleasure, one afternoon. His work now speaks to no one and sells for next to nothing. The brook remains unidentified and receives few visitors, except for myself. Having bought the house where the artist once lived from his brother, who made more than enough from the whole debacle to relocate to the city to follow his newfound greed, it is now I who stands there on the bank. Every day, I draw what I see before me, in my own clumsy way. My clothes are worn thin, my face already weathering from time and the elements. Although I find no value in them myself, I am careful not to allow any passing stranger to see my drawings. For who knows what they might see, somehow caught between the strokes of the pen.

I offer my gift to the brook. It takes it, and with it, my shame, for one day only. The same deal, I hope, will be reached tomorrow.

I climb the verge quickly, and cross the meadow.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Chain

At nineteen minutes past seven and forty-three seconds, a man feels unease regarding the inevitability of his own death. The idea of total annihilation troubles him immensely, and all that would otherwise give his life a sense of meaning is, in that instant, emptied of any value. Without warning, the man ceases to exist, and the matter from which he was composed immediately becomes that of another man, separate from the individual who had so recently occupied that location, who nevertheless thinks he possesses a memory of being that man, and indeed, believes this to be so. In the very brief moment that he has life, he too, fears his own death. This is his only thought before he is also no more.

The stuff that constituted him in that moment takes on yet another incarnation. A man, who imagines himself to be not just the individual just gone, but also the man before, and considers them all to be the same person, and yet, unlike them, does not fear death. Rather, he is of the impression that earlier that day, he had read an amusing anecdote in a newspaper (although he did not exist then, and so is mistaken), and the seeming remembrance of that anecdote, and the pleasure that it causes, occupies his mind entirely in the fraction of time in which he constitutes a presence in the world.

And he himself is replaced by another man, who lives but for an instant before being supplanted. Over and over, the pattern repeats, each man believing himself to be all of those others who preceded him, not in the sense of a multitude, but constituting the sequential existence of a single person.

Finally, after some years, a man comes into being to live, like the others, but for one moment. That moment passes. He is no more, and is succeeded by no one.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Cover-Up (a love story)

You know, well, you remember, don’t you? That thing we did, yesterday. You see, the thing is, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done it or anything like that, but I don’t really think it should happen again. I mean, it was great, it really was but, well, as I’m sure you know, it makes things a little complicated. There are, well, let’s just say there– I guess what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t tell anyone. We wouldn’t want to, well, we wouldn’t want to, you know.

I’m not sorry we did it though, and you shouldn’t be sorry either. It was what we wanted, and that’s our business. But it just can’t be a regular thing, that’s all. But I mean, if we were to do it again, and I’m not saying we should, I think we shouldn’t, but if we were to do it again, I guess we’d have to think about how we went about it, you know, and plan ahead, make sure no-one, that is, who doesn’t need to know about it, knows about it. You know what I mean. But I’m glad we did it. I really am. Just don’t tell – of course you won’t.

Now I’d better get on, things to do. Do you need a lift into town? I thought we could stop off and – no, of course, of course. We wouldn’t want that. But I’ll have a free afternoon sometime next week, I can’t say when yet, but – we should do that, we definitely should. Definitely. I’ll text you. But don’t save it, just in case of – well, you know how it is.

Wear something nice. Not too nice, you know, because of – yes, I do, I think I really do. I don’t think I ever have before, no, not like this. This is amazing. But don’t – yeah, exactly. It would just complicate things. We’ll see how it goes. But I do, you know, I really do. You know that, don’t you?

Friday, 27 January 2012

Afterlife Proposal no. 1: This Beautiful Death

When Ashley told me his love was no more, I thought it time to take my own life. It was something I had been considering for some while - since nursery school, in fact. And that moment, when hope had been revealed as the lie I had always known it to be, seemed to be most fitting.

Mine would be the most poetic of deaths: a painless slip into the endless sleep; my pale submerged body to be found by my dear father in the bath; a trail of rose petals, and incense in the air. Oh, very Ophelia. No doubt he would cradle me in his arms, overwhelmed with grief, yet of course understanding why this had to be; his pain instantaneously turning to happiness that my suffering was finally at an end.

My original plan was to slit my wrists, but I decided against it, as I feared that I might fail to cut a perfectly straight line, or worse, need more than one go before I got it right. Besides, although the blood would look wonderful in the water, it would stain my father’s clothes in the most unsightly way when he scooped me up and held me to his breast. So instead I decided I would swallow a cocktail of all the silly pills I had been prescribed by the medical establishment in order to counter my inextinguishable knowledge of the meaninglessness of all existence. They did nothing for me, of course; you can’t argue with the unavoidable truth.

I had no intention of taking them straight out of the bottles, needless to say. No, instead I chose to collect them in a shell, which once having placed between my pale lips and poured the pills from it into my mouth, I would let drop from my hand and over the side of the bath, making what I felt would be a rather pleasing visual symbol of being born into death: an ironic allusion, of course, to Botticelli’s pitifully hopeful Birth of Venus. Not that anyone would notice. Anyway, it would also draw attention away from the toilet seat: a most unwelcome intrusion to my tableau. Then, washing the pills down with a sip of blood-red wine from a long-stemmed glass, I would lie back in the water, waiting for death to take me in its warm embrace. Upon discovery of my beautiful demise, my father would immediately contact Ashley and inform him of what his thoughtless actions had led to. He would rush to the scene, and prostrate himself before my empty vessel, begging for a forgiveness that would never come. He would see that he was a fool for dumping me in favour of that slattern in his Communication Studies class, and my death would bring about a moral and just resolution; albeit all too late for me.

At least that was the plan.

Thing’s didn’t get off to the most perfect of starts. I made the mistake of filling up the bath first, and I hadn’t even arranged and lit half the atmospherically illuminating candles that were to cover every flat surface in the bathroom, including the toilet seat, before the temperature of the water dropped to tepid. I filled it up with more water from the hot tap, but then the bath was far too full, and I had to let a fair bit out before it was right again. By then, some of the candles had already gone out. It took a good half an hour longer than I had planned for to get all the candles alight simultaneously, along with the incense burners; not to mention the rose petals, which I wanted to have leading from the front door up the stairs, before forming a carpet in the bathroom and finally floating on the surface of the water, obscuring my still form beneath. Only, I’d underestimated how many I would need, and the rose petal carpet was decidedly threadbare. In any case, it all meant I had a half an hour less to die in before daddy came back from the bowls club.

Finally, everything was in place. I took off my silk kimono and draped it dramatically on the floor, conveniently covering a bald patch in the rose petal carpet. Then, I lowered my beautiful, pale, doomed body into the water for the last time. Or what was meant to be the last time, anyway.


I’d forgotten my seashell with the pills. It was on my dresser in the bedroom. I pulled myself out of the water; rose petals clung to my skin. I didn’t even have a towel ready. Well, I didn’t think I’d be needing one. Yet more petals stuck to the soles of my feet as I scampered to the bedroom, dripping water as I went.

I got the shell. Some of the pills rolled out as I picked it up, so I had to prize them out from between the fibres of the carpet and brush a hair off of one. Carefully, I carried it back to the bathroom and laid it on the side of my watery tomb. I pulled the rose petals off my feet and placed them back on the floor, which now had damp footmarks all over it. They looked awful, but I reasoned they would dry before my daddy got home. Again, I lowered myself down into the bath.

And there I lay, the shell beside me. Was I really going to do it? There was still time to change my mind. After all, some would heartlessly say it was just a teenage love affair gone wrong. Was it really worth dying for? Yes. Yes, it was, I knew. This was the moment that my whole life had been building up to. For it wasn’t just about Ashley, not really. He was but the final damning proof of what I had known for as long as I could remember. Living was a curse: no, a disease. The pills were the cure. And with that I opened my mouth wide and poured the pills in from the shell, the odd one or two falling into the water. I don’t think it could have looked very ladylike.

Although I struggled to pass them down my throat all at once, I had become very adept at swallowing pills over the years, even without anything to wash them down with. But why wasn’t there? I had forgotten my wine. It was down in the kitchen, all poured out into the long-stemmed glass. Oh well, never mind, I thought. I wasn’t getting up again. And perhaps it would have more symbolic meaning down in the kitchen.

So there I lay, waiting to die. Not much happened for the longest time. I had an awful feeling Daddy would come home, follow the rose petal trail, and find me in the bath, right as rain. Then I began to feel drowsy. Very suddenly, I found myself slipping away into unconsciousness. And as I began to sleep, I could feel my head slip down, down under the water. I was dimly aware that the water was filling my nose and my mouth, but then, all was dark. Death was here, at last…

But then it wasn’t. I was still underwater; my lungs were filling up, but I felt alert; wide-awake. I thought maybe I would involuntarily try to raise myself up and cough out the water, an instinctive survival mechanism taking hold, but there was none of that. Just myself in the water, the water in me. So why wasn’t I dead, or at least dying? I could see the rose petals above me, and the candles burning away all around. It all seemed so perfect. Except that I was still there to see it. Still, no doubt I would be dead soon. It would all work out.

Suddenly my arm threw itself up in the air. And stayed. My leg on the opposite side followed suit. Oh no, I thought, I’m having spasms. I had completely forgot that might happen. I knew I looked ridiculous, with one arm and one leg sticking up; the arm bent at an odd angle at the shoulder and wrist, the leg dead straight, like I was kicking a football. I tried to move them back down but they would not. In fact, I couldn’t move anything. Not even an eyelid. I was paralysed.

But that wasn’t the half of it. Things started getting really bad. I felt a strange relaxation in my groin. The water round there started to get warmer. Oh, no, it couldn’t be… I was pissing myself! This certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to be found, lying in my own yellowy piss. I wished I could reach for the plughole, empty the bath and start again. But I couldn’t move a muscle. Muscles were moving on their own however, including those in my arse. I felt them loosen. I knew what was coming. Yes, absolutely… I was doing a shit. I was shitting myself and I could not stop it. I was lying in a bath, my arms and legs sticking up, in my own piss and shit. This beautiful death could not have gone more wrong.

There was a gargling sound in my throat. I believe it was what is known as the death rattle, legendarily heard just before the moment it all ends. It was there; I heard it. That should have been it. All over. Dead. Except it wasn’t. I was still there, feeling my own excrement bob against my leg in the water.

I was half-right about Daddy’s reaction. He did scoop me out of the water when he saw me and clasped me passionately to his chest, although not after he’d got his foot caught on my kimono and skidded halfway across the bathroom floor. Unfortunately my shit had begun to disintegrate by then and some had come to rest on top of me, and that got stuck to his nice shirt. I would have preferred the blood. And then he laid me down and tried to bring me back using mouth-to-mouth CPR. It was very odd feeling my daddy’s lips on mine, not to mention his pressing down between my tits. Quite frankly, it brought up all sorts of feelings I really didn’t want to have to deal with, but being dead and incapable of movement, there was little I could do but wait it out.

After he’d tried a few times, he fumbled with his mobile and frantically called an ambulance. He had real trouble giving them the basic information; just kept on screaming to come quickly. Which they didn’t, or at least it seemed they didn’t. Maybe time was crawling because daddy was alternately blowing into my mouth and slamming on my chest whilst crying. But still, even if I had been alive when he’d called, I should have been dead by the time they arrived.

In the meantime, he was trying over and over again to revive me, and saying: ‘Don’t die, my precious, don’t leave me. It’ll be OK. Daddy’s here. Don’t die.’

It was quite moving; upsetting almost. But really, I thought, couldn’t he see the inevitability and tragic beauty of the gesture like he was meant to? It would make it so much easier on him. I love him to pieces, but it was just like Daddy to lay a guilt trip on me and ruin my big moment. And anyway, technically speaking, Daddy murdered me, along with Mummy, so he could have been a bit more dignified about it all to compensate. Well, they decided to have me, didn’t they? I mean, when you have a child, you sentence it to death, seeing as no one lives forever. And they say we should be grateful to our parents for bringing us into the world and giving us life. Well, yes, that’s all very well, but what about the burden of mortality, and the inevitability of our own demise? Should we be grateful for that too? Anyone irresponsible enough to have a child is a murderer. Although that’s just obvious, of course.

The ambulance people knew it was hopeless. They tried a bit of CPR too, and then practically fried me with those electrical pads, which wasn’t at all fun. You can feel it in your teeth, you know. But in the end, they just called the time, packed up their things, and while daddy cried into the tits of the slut from next door, who was pretending to comfort him but really just trying to cop a feel just like she’d been doing since mum scarpered, they packed me up too.

I couldn’t believe they were taking me away before Ashley had been made to see me in the tableau I had created, purely for his guilty pleasure. Although having said that, in a way I was glad he’d missed it because of, well, all the shit. Quite embarrassing, really. But still, the rose petals and the candles worked awfully well. Most of them were still going when the ambulance people came, although someone chucked a load of them in the bath to clear some space. And I was a bit annoyed absolutely no one picked up on the significance of the shell, although realistically, I suppose they don’t need to be good at art history in their line of work. But couldn’t somebody have made a bit of an effort? It would just have taken one of them to pause, and say, ‘It’s beautiful,’ and it would have made the whole thing worthwhile. Maybe the shit just ruined it for them, I don’t know.

It was pitch black in the body bag; not that I would ever see anything again because someone pushed my eyelids down and I haven’t been able to move them since, but I could hear everything that was going on in the ambulance. The cheek of those people! Actually, I’m not surprised they didn’t appreciate the effort I went to, seeing as they were so utterly insensitive to my situation. They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there: saying things like how sad it was, but also, and I couldn’t believe this, slagging me off for being so selfish to put Daddy through it all. It’s all right for them to say that, but if they knew what a terrible life I’d led, and what Ashley did to me, then I bet they would understand, like Daddy is going to, one day.

By the time of the funeral, I had been through hell. Not only was I kept in that wretched body bag, but I could tell from the slamming sound I had been shoved in a drawer somewhere. It was freezing, absolutely freezing. I would have been able to see my breath if I only had any and my eyes would open. After a while, I lost all track of time. I had no idea how long I was in for; maybe only hours, could have been days. But there, in the dark and cold, with only the odd distant noise of another drawer being opened or shut, there was nothing you could orient yourself with.

And then they pulled me out of the drawer for the autopsy. Yes, an autopsy. Because I hadn’t left any bottles conveniently lying around, they had to cut me open to work out how I died. I mean, they knew, but they had to prove it so they could fill out the death certificate.

At first, I could hear them talking about me: just about my birthmarks and tattoo and the scar on my knee from when I fell off the swing when I was five. They took some photographs, cleaned me all over, which meant I finally got that shit off me, pulled off my rings and necklace, and weighed me. And then, I felt the most incredible stabbing pain that went right from my throat to my groin. It was horrible, but strange. It wasn’t pain like I was used to. It was almost pain, without the pain, if that makes any sense. I guess it doesn’t. It was as if my body was remembering that it did once feel pain, and that it should feel pain, even though it couldn’t any more. It was the ghost of pain. And it was then that I finally realised what I was. I was a ghost, haunting my own body.

Although I couldn’t see it, I knew from the conversation I had been split right open. What happened next, with them sawing through my ribs and pulling them out in one go, and then each of my organs being removed and plopped on a plate, I really don’t want to dwell on. Suffice to say, ghost pain or not, it went a bit beyond having your tonsils out. Then, once they had finished and come to the very obvious conclusion that I had died from taking lots of pills, they filled me up with some padding, cotton wool or something, and put everything they’d taken out back, but in what I could tell from the rustling was a plastic bag! After that it was on with the chest cavity, skin sown up, in the bag and back in the freezer.

Again, I lost all track of time. I was in that drawer for god knows how long. But then I was on the move again. The drawer was opened, and I was lifted onto a trolley. I could hear some idle chitchat about the bloody football as I was pushed down some corridors and out in the fresh air and into the back of a vehicle. The football chatter went on and on as I was driven halfway across town, which was almost as bad as the freezer in its own way. Then out of the van, into somewhere else and popped into a freezer again.

I didn’t spend so much time in that one, I know it. Although with what happened next, I wish I had. They fucking embalmed me. Which means they took all the blood out of my body. I could feel myself emptying and then being pumped full of something awful and chemical. I can’t believe Daddy allowed it. He knows how I feel about that sort of thing. The only artificial thing I’d let into my body when I was alive was a cap, and all the depression meds I suppose. But now it was running through my veins, all of them. You can’t imagine how invasive that feels. And the smell, it was toxic.

To add insult to injury, once they’d finished pumping my body with crap, they started shovelling it on my face. They positively caked me in make-up, and I could tell it wasn’t exactly the simple, pale look I’d made my own. From the amount they were plastering on, I bet I looked like some council estate whore, so I suppose Ashley would like me now. Typical. You spend all your time trying to look like death when you’re alive, and when you finally get to be a corpse, they cover you in rouge.

After the wake, where everyone I half-remembered meeting in my life turned up and lied about how upset they were right in my slap-covered face, the funeral had to be the biggest insult. Daddy only went and had it in a church! He knew that I didn’t believe in anything, or at best, vampirism. The vicar gave an arsey sermon as a warning to all my friends about how I was going to Hell because I’d killed myself. But more fool him, because I hadn’t. I was right there, in the coffin, and I could hear every word. Daddy tried to say something, but he couldn’t because he was crying too much, which I suppose was very moving, but I was still seething about the church, so I couldn’t feel as sad about it as I probably would have done otherwise. Various ‘friends’ read some of my favourite poems, although some of them totally shafted me and read Bible verses. They all sounded pretty choked up too, but I knew that ’Tasha and Valerie were getting off on it really; loving all the death stuff and a bit jealous that it was me and not them. But you know what? I don’t think Ashley was even there. You’d think he’d stop by and see his handiwork at some point. He was probably so overwhelmed with guilt he just couldn’t leave the house. Yeah, right.

At least they got the music right at the end and played Song to the Siren (This Mortal Coil version, obviously) as they carried me out. I must have mentioned to ’Tasha that it’s what I wanted at least fifty times so I’m glad it sunk in.

Then it was into the back of a car and off to the graveyard. And there I was lowered as the vicar dribbled on with the ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ crap; some soil thrown on me and yet another bloody prayer. Finally a bit of slightly too cheery murmuring as everyone began getting on with their lives and forgetting about me and going on their way to the after-funeral buffet and stuffing themselves.

So here I am, down here. No idea how long it’s been, but the fact that there are maggots hatching under my skin suggests it’s been a while. Dear old daddy, he got a biodegradable coffin. No matter that they pumped me so full of chemicals when they embalmed me I’m probably toxic to anything in a ten-meter radius.

Was it all worth it? Well, the bathroom tableau didn’t quite work out, I admit, what with the shit and everything. I’d do it differently next time. But, looking back on it, the funeral, even though it was silly C of E, was quite an event. I expect it looked great. And even though he wasn’t there, I bet Ashley heard about it all afterwards. I’m sure I made my point anyway. Yes, life is a curse that brings only pain and despair. Of that I am still certain. The only problem is, that curse still hasn’t left me yet. It’s still down here with me in the grave: plaguing me in my rotting body.

I don’t know, for a while I actually didn’t mind being here. You’d think you’d panic, being buried in a coffin as you feel your flesh decompose, but its strange; it’s all quite calm: peaceful, almost. But even so, it’s a bit of a bore. Nothing to do, nobody to talk to. Just time to think. Time for lots of thinking. Going over things, again and again and again.

You know, sometimes I just want to die.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Josh & Jools, Kenny and Rose

According to the clock on the wall, it was ten past ten in the morning, and just like every morning, the first customer of the day to enter Josh & Jools’s Second-Hand Book Emporium was Kenny.

‘Hello my love,’ he said, as the shop bell announced his arrival. He placed his arms around Jools as she leaned forward to arrange the window display and, to Josh’s annoyance, kissed her un-offered cheek.

Kenny was wearing his usual outfit, a running vest and perilously short shorts; his long unwashed sandy hair spilling out from behind a headband that was once white, but now grey with age and dirt. Rather than the accompanying running shoes one might expect, however, he instead wore sandals sans socks, showcasing his toenails, long and yellow. Josh could smell the fresh odour of sweat emanating out of Kenny’s unclad armpits from his position behind the counter, several meters away. God knows what it must be like for Jools, he thought, having him wrapped round her like that. He had said to Jools he’d have a word to him about it, but she’d told him, no, not to bother; Kenny was harmless.

‘Hello, Kenny,’ said Jools, her accent betraying origins perhaps less genteel than her current surroundings. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Very well actually,’ said Kenny, spit flying out between unwashed teeth, green with scum, as he did so. ‘The universe has spoken.’

‘Oh really, that’s good,’ said Jools.

‘Yes, very shortly, I shall find love.’

‘That’s brilliant, Kenny.’

‘Specifically, I am going to meet Rose, a lovely lady, who lives round here.’

‘Really?’ asked Jools. ‘What’s she like?’

‘I’m not sure. I haven’t met her yet. Like I say, she lives round here, so I’m bound to bump into her.’

‘Well, good luck with that.’

‘Thank you Jools! Anyway, I just have to check something. Won’t be a minute.’ Kenny hugged and kissed her again, inhaling her scent, or so it seemed to Josh, and walked purposefully into the shop. The ritual had begun.

He first trod a loose circle in the middle of the floor next to the sale table, looking at the bookcases and mouthing words to himself as he did so, a pointed finger striking each one off some imaginary list, at least three times each. Three times, he passed Josh at the counter.

‘Hi Kenny,’ said Josh.

Kenny just waved and smiled, still silently speaking his secret words, following his beaklike nose round an invisible path through the shop, and leaving his odour behind him, until he stood in front of a bookcase at the back wall. He crouched down and touched the base, and counted the shelves with his finger, starting at the bottom. He did this several times, down and up, raising himself and lowering again, before settling on a shelf slightly below midway.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six…’

Josh could hear him now, each poke in the spine of a book accompanied by its own number. When he got to the end of the shelf, he went back again over the same books in reverse, the numbers still rising, until he stopped on book sixty-three. He pulled the book out, checked the final page number, and counted the amount of blank pages at the beginning and end. After some more calculation, he turned to a page about two-thirds of the way through. Down and up, his finger skimmed the lines. Only one of them seemed to be of interest to him. He started to add the number of words in that line, from left to right, and back again several times, the count going ever upwards, before settling on one word in particular. His word for the day. He mouthed it to himself. He closed the book.

Then, without saying goodbye to either of them, he hurriedly skipped out of the shop, his eyes focussed on some invisible destination.

Josh shook his head in disbelief.

‘How come he never speaks to me?’ he asked.

‘Because you’re always behind the till, and by the time he sees you, he’s already started,’ she replied, walking over to the counter.

‘What was he going on about anyway?’ said Josh.

‘Oh, the universe has spoken to him again.’

‘Good, it’s always fun when the universe speaks to him. What did it have to say for itself this time?’

‘Just that he’s going to find love again. This time it’s with someone he hasn’t even met yet: some woman called Rose.’

‘Well I hope for her sake he never does.’

‘Don’t be cruel. He’s harmless.’

‘Hmm, I’m not so sure about that. He’s virtually a stalker.’

‘Yeah, well, he doesn’t mean any harm.’

‘I guess, although I’m not sure the women he follows see it that way. I just wish he’d buy something, really.’

Jools smiled and went back to her window display. Josh admired her bottom as she bent over. Cute as a button, he thought to himself. That’s my girl. A flash of pride hit him as he gazed upon her. Then he thought of Kenny, with his unearned kisses and touches, and his contentment passed.

At ten past ten the next morning, the bell told the shop that Kenny was here. As usual, Jools was out on the shop floor, tidying the shelves for the first and not the last time that day. And as usual, Josh was behind the counter, pretending not to see him.

‘Hello Kenny,’ said Jools.

‘Hello, my darling,’ he said, leaning over the counter for his morning hug and unreturned kiss.

‘How are you today, alright?’ asked Jools.

‘Wonderful,’ said Kenny, his grey, staring eyes pushing their way out of their sockets, ‘absolutely wonderful.’

‘Really, why’s that then?’

‘The universe has been speaking to me in all sorts of ways about Rose.’

‘Oh yeah,’ said Jools.

‘Yes,’ said Kenny. ‘Firstly, this morning, I turned on my television, and I don’t even watch it very much because it’s all so negative, but the very second or third thing I saw was an American programme, where a man was giving his wife presents for their anniversary. And guess what he gave her?’


‘He gave her, well I can’t remember the main thing he gave her, but he also gave her… a rose.’


‘And then, I remembered, last night, I was walking home and - are you familiar with that lovely song, “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”?’ Kenny sang a few bars, loudly and tunelessly, in demonstration.

‘Yeah, kinda.’

‘I went past a builder’s van, and they had the radio on, and guess what was playing?’

‘I dunno, Kenny.’

‘That song. That very song.’

‘Really? That’s quite spooky actually.’

‘But that’s not all.’

‘You’re kidding.’

‘And just now, I was walking down this street and, do you know that flower shop that’s on the corner?’


‘Just as I walked past, at the very precise second, the man came out and put some fresh roses in a bucket outside.’

‘Jesus, Kenny, that’s incredible.’

‘And then, and this is the truly amazing thing, the universe spoke to me through you, Jools.’

‘Through me.’

‘Yes, through you, one of my dearest friends. Which means it’s really trying to tell me something about my future with Rose.’

‘How’s that then, ’cos I don’t remember the universe speaking through me recently.’

‘In the window, this morning, there, right in the centre, was a book.’

‘Well, to be fair, Kenny, this is a bookshop, know what I mean? I’m kidding, Kenny, I’m kidding. What was so special about this one?’

‘It’s name. It was called, The Name of the Rose.’

‘Yeah, that’s quite a popular book, Kenny. We get it in a lot.’

‘Yes, but you only put it out for display yesterday, which obviously means I was meant to see it today. It’s the universe, Jools, acting through you, sending me in the right direction. To find Rose.’

‘Maybe it is, Kenny. Maybe it is.’

‘Anyway,’ said Kenny, closing in for his second hug and kiss, ‘I just have to check something. Won’t be a minute.’

With that, as always, he entered into his counting ritual, carried out with the same precision as the day before, and every day for the past three years and more, eventually leading him to that day’s shelf: a bookcase to the left and down from the one arrived at precisely twenty-four hours before. And as always, the process then drew him to one particular book; then a page, and finally a word. He mouthed it to himself, before leaving in haste, the usual visionary look in his eyes.

‘Mmmm…’ said Josh, ‘there’s nothing quite like the smell of Kenny in the morning.’

‘Oh, leave him alone,’ said Jools, ‘he can’t help it.’

‘He can. He just needs to wash.’

‘It’s not quite as simple as that and you know it. He’s obviously got some disorder. Mind you, I do have to say he was doing my head in with all that stuff about the universe telling him about Rose. I mean, if you look out for things like that, you’re going to find them, aren’t you?’

‘Of course you are. Did you feel the universe possess you when you put that book out?’

‘No,’ she said, laughing. ‘But when you think about it, he’d just come in and gone on about Rose. And then I’ve got to find a book to put in the middle of the display…’

‘And so you choose a book with ‘rose’ in the title…’

‘Yeah, so it’s… what do you call it, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s going to make something happen just by going on about it all the time.’

‘You know what,’ said Josh, ‘we could really mess with his head. Stick a different rose-themed book in the window each day, or have a big gardening book display and have them all open on a page with a rose on it.’

‘Oh, that would be evil, Josh.’

‘Yeah, I guess it would.’

That night, Josh and Jools lay in bed. While Jools read a book from the shop downstairs, Josh just stared at the ceiling, waiting for tiredness.

‘You know,’ said Josh,’ ‘I wonder what Kenny’s system is for counting

the shelves.’

‘Bloody hell,’ said Jools, ‘you’re not still thinking about sodding Kenny are you?’

‘It’s interesting!’ said Josh.

‘Well, he kind of told me once. There are good numbers and bad numbers apparently. When he comes in the shop, he counts the number of bookcases until he hits one of his good numbers. Then he goes up and down the shelves in the bookcase until he hits another one. And he does the same thing with the books, and the pages, and the lines, until he finds the word in that line which has the good number. And that word is a message to him from the universe.’

‘Wow. You’ve never told me that before.’

‘You’ve never been interested before. You’ve always left me to deal with Kenny while you hide behind the counter.’

‘But what if the word for the day is ‘and’, or something?’ said Josh. ‘How’s that a message from the universe?’

‘You’d have to ask him that.’

‘Yeah, s’pose. I wonder what he does all day.’

‘I’m really too tired to care.’

Jools put her book down and turned out the light. Josh didn’t sleep for hours.

‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ asked Jools, as Josh unbolted the door and flipped the sign from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’.

‘Yes, please,’ he said.

‘Just one problem,’ she shouted from the kitchen behind the shop.


‘We’re out of milk. I thought we still had some left after breakfast, but we don’t.’

Josh knew this to be true, as he had poured what remained, about enough for two cups of coffee, down the sink not half an hour before.

‘Oh well,’ he said as Jools stepped through the door marked ‘Staff Only’, and into the shop. ‘If you want to pop out for some I’ll keep watch here and tidy up the window display as well if you like.’

‘No, it’s ok. I’ll pick some up during my lunch break.’ Lunchtime. The only part of the day that Josh felt allowed out from behind the counter unsupervised. Jools would take half an hour. Then he would take his. For half an hour, she had resigned herself to trusting him not to mess up the shop.

‘Ah, I could really do with some,’ said Josh.

‘I know,’ said Jools, ‘but –’

‘But what? Can’t you trust me for a few minutes?’

‘Yeah, course,’ said Jools, biting her lip, her fingers drumming. ‘Just don’t touch the window display, ok? Oh, and you do know Kenny’ll probably be in here in about five minutes.’

‘Of course he will,’ said Josh, ‘but it’ll be fine. He won’t want to talk to me.’

‘Right. But he will be here.’ she said, taking money from her pocket and counting it twice, passing it from left hand to right and back again.

‘Yeah,’ said Josh.

‘Ok, back in a little bit,’ she said, a smile straining. She kissed him on the cheek, and checked the pocket of her jeans for change again as she left.

Josh looked at the shop. It was beautiful, to him. It seemed so perfect: an old-fashioned bookshop that didn’t feel old. It wasn’t musty, with layers of dust coating old stock, like so many. It was clean and hygienic, but still warm and rich with atmosphere, the way a bookshop should be. He’d painted it cream to suggest the presence of a coffee shop extension, without the trouble of actually running one. And the name, ‘Josh & Jools’s Book Emporium’, stencilled on the windows in large imperial letters. For some reason, the shop made him think of the city of Boston, although he had never been there. The cleanliness was all down to Jools of course, but the general feeling of the place, that was his, he knew.

It had become clear six years ago, when their university courses ended and their relationship didn’t, that they would at least be attempting to spend the rest of their lives together. That was when he had let her in on his dream, harboured since puberty. It had become their dream. And the dream became real, here in this quiet cathedral city, where Jools once holidayed as a child, away from her bookless broken home, and had fantasised about living ever since. The reality was as beautiful as the dream had been, almost.

Jools was beautiful as well, of course, from the day he had met her until now, with her Louise Brooks fringe, delightfully flared nostrils and eyebrows arched on demand; her petite figure kept trim by her constant movement, straightening the already straightened books, rearranging the already perfect table and window displays. Sometimes Josh would deliberately mess up a shelf behind her back, just to give her tidying some point. The only time she seemed to stand still was to price new stock - a job she would do quickly, Josh surmised, so that she could get on with putting it all on the shelves where it could be tidied as soon as possible.

His hair grown long over the years since they opened, but still stubbornly maintaining a side-parting, Josh had gone to fat stuck behind the counter. It wasn’t his fault, he’d tell himself. He wasn’t allowed to move. No wonder he’d got chubby. If only she trusted him with the shop, they could both have so much more free time. But she didn’t trust him, so there they were. Stuck inside, day in day out. Her tidying, him turning toadlike as he sat, hidden behind thick glasses: his eyesight ruined by the books he read waiting for customers or collectors to turn up with out-of-fashion collectables to haggle over. He didn’t mind really, he’d say silently to the empty space. Not when his shop and his girl were so beautiful. Not counting him, everything in the shop was beautiful. And Kenny, of course. Kenny wasn’t beautiful.

It wasn’t long after the shop first opened that he had made his first appearance. He didn’t seem that odd at first, other than the way he looked, of course. But soon it became clear that he was turning up in the shop every day. And not just every day, but at the same time. Gradually the counting became apparent. Then Jools thought it would be a good idea to say hello, in a friendly way. And that led to the kissing and the hugging. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, though Josh, if, once, just once, Kenny actually bought something.

It was nearly time. Josh got himself in position in front of the window display, counted the number of empty spaces, and quickly picked the matching number of desirable books from the nearby shelves. He started placing them in the spaces slowly, making sure the simple task would be only half finished by ten past ten.

He could see Kenny coming up the street now. He was looking at his watch as he walked. About ten metres from the shop he stopped, concentrating still more on his watch-face for nearly a minute, before walking briskly and entering the shop at what Josh saw on the clock on the wall to be ten past ten precisely.

Kenny looked left and right as the bell reverberated behind him: scanning the shop, searching for Jools, no doubt, and showing evident surprise to find her not there.

‘Hello Kenny,’ said Josh, straightening the book he had been slowly placing for a minute and a half.

‘Oh, hello Josh,’ said Kenny, ‘didn’t expect to you see there. Jools not in today?’

‘Yeah, she’s just popped out for milk.’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘So… Kenny. The, ah, universe said anything more about Rose?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Kenny, ‘many, many things.’

Josh straightened himself up. He knew now that this was the last chance to back out of the action he had decided upon in the early hours of the morning. The final opportunity for kindness was passing. Then it was gone. Now Josh knew he had to be ruthless, and he had to be smart, remembering every detail he was about to wring out of his troublesome visitor.

‘What was the word Kenny?’ shouted Josh over the noise of the bell, eleven minutes later. Kenny did not seem to hear as he strode out the shop, and only gave Jools the most perfunctory of nods as he passed her stepping in the door. Jools watched him for a second stride down the street as if fixing the fact of his visit in her mind.

‘Sorry I took so long,’ she said, the door swinging shut behind her and clanging the bell for a second time. ‘There was a really big queue and it was the new girl. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’

‘That’s ok,’ said Josh, clutching the book in which Kenny had found his message for the day moments before.

‘Was Kenny all right with you?’ asked Jools.

‘Yes, actually,’ said Josh, ‘we had a nice chat.’

‘What about?’

‘Oh, nothing much. Just his usual gibberish.’

‘You’ve touched the window display.’ Frantically she started taking out the books Josh had inserted and replaced them with choices of her own. ‘Why couldn’t you leave it? I told you not to touch it.’

Josh did not reply. He was staring at a page in a book on railway engineering that Kenny had just been looking at, immediately after being only too happy to explain his system to Josh. A line. ‘where production rose steeply by 27%. Following the development of’. Third word along. ‘Rose’.

It’s just a coincidence, thought Josh to himself. If you have a system of choosing words at random, and you become obsessed with a very common word like ‘rose’, then by the law of averages, at some point you’re very likely to come across it. It’s unusual, yes, for it to come up so soon, but it’s just as likely to appear on the third or fourth day of your obsession than it is the twenty-third or fifty-fourth. That’s randomness for you. It’s so meaningless it can sometimes take on the appearance of significance, because all possibilities contained within the parameters of a system are equally likely. After all, human beings are pattern-seeking animals. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage to see significance in things. It’s what helped us hunt and predict the seasons, but also what gave rise to superstition and religion.

But this was a bookshop. It was a place of reason, ‘Occult’ section notwithstanding, and there was no room for someone like Kenny. At least, not until he bought something.

Josh sat behind the counter again while Jools finished making the coffee, hurriedly noting down all that Kenny had told him, and hoping he had remembered it all correctly. He suspected that some of the notation wasn’t quite correct, as he hadn’t done any proper maths since school other than the basics he needed to do the accounts, but what he wrote made sense to him.

Good numbers = 3 and 5 and all multiples.

Bad numbers = all numbers not multiples of above.

Day of month x 3 ÷ 16 (no. of bookcases in shop). R (remainder) = Today’s Bookcase. Start from left of door.

Month of year x 5 ÷ 6 (no. of shelves in a bookcase). R = Today’s Shelf. Start from bottom!

Year (i.e. ’07) x 3 - no. of books on shelf. R = Book. Left to right, then back again!

No. of pages (ALL) ÷ 5 (forget R!) = Page no.

No. of lines ÷ 3 (remember R!) = Line no.

No. of words ÷ (5 + R from above!) + R = THE WORD.

He was pretty sure that was it. That was Kenny’s system. He tapped his pencil on the counter as he thought how best to use it.

The shop had gotten quite busy by lunchtime, and Jools seemed always to be hovering, getting especially close whenever Josh tried to surreptitiously scribble something on a Post-It. Or else, a customer would appear before him requiring service, and by the time he returned to his secret note-making, his idea no longer seemed good. At about half-two, however, the shop began to thin out, and he suggested that Jools take her lunch. She told him not to touch anything, and went upstairs to the flat. Now was the moment.

Josh hurriedly wrote his latest idea down on the Post-It, concluding that it was as good as any, and slid from his pocket the torn piece of notepaper that contained Kenny’s formula. He began to do the sums in his head.

Tomorrow would be the Twentieth. That’s 3 x 20 = 60. So that would be 60 ÷ 16 = 3, with 12 left over. He approached the identified bookcase. Next, it’s the month x 5, divided by six. It’ll be the same as this morning. Bottom shelf.

7 x 3. 21.

19 books on shelf, so, one, two back.

307 pages, divided by five.

Page 60.

42 lines. Divided by… No, he’d made a mistake. He hadn’t counted the unnumbered pages, the contents page and the rest. He had to go back.

324 actual pages.

Divided by five, leads to...

Page 64.

42 lines. Divided by three. No remainder.

Nine words, divided by five. One, with four left over.

Fifth word.


At least it wasn’t…

Over this he attached the Post-It, it’s message clear in capital letters.

‘Meet me by the fountain at midnight.


He closed the book and placed it back on the shelf. His whole body tingling with the thrill of the subterfuge, Josh walked back to the till.

He’d worked it all out correctly – the bookcase, the shelf, the book, the page, the line. The word. Kenny had not only read the note the next morning, but carefully removed it, folded the sticky strip over, and placed it between the waistband of his shorts and his underpants. He nearly forgot to look at his word for the day in his haste to leave, while the visionary stare in his eyes was even more intense than normal.

At five to twelve that night, Josh stood in the living room of the flat, by the open window, looking out onto the high street. Jools was in bed already, reading. There had been an explosion of boisterous noise about ten minutes ago when the pub on the corner had emptied, the drinkers heading for the takeaways that lay in wait for them on the way home, but now all was quiet.

Josh looked up the high street. There, in the distance, was the town fountain, dating back well over a hundred years. It sat at a crossroads in the centre of the pedestrianised shopping centre, the ancient cathedral looming behind. Although the water did not jet at night, it was nevertheless lit, as was the cathedral, by pastel hued beams; unbecoming the historic nature of the place, Josh had often thought. But he was glad of those unnecessary shafts of coloured light now. For without them he would not have seen Kenny, approaching from the direction of the cathedral, still wearing nothing but his vest, shorts and sandals in the cool night air, checking his watch.

Kenny was not just on time, but early. For nearly four minutes he stood there, on the periphery of the illuminated area, looking at his watch. Then, at precisely twelve o’clock, he stepped forward, going up to the edge of the fountain. He started checking all four directions of the crossroads. After exactly ten minutes of this, and no appearance from Rose, Kenny did something unexpected. He climbed right over the side of the basin of the fountain, stepped into it, strode across, and pulled himself up onto the fountainhead itself. He then continued to cling from it awkwardly, while still keeping his multidirectional lookout. Josh found himself marvelling at the potential leaps of logic that would lead Kenny to do this, all the while praying that any CCTV camera that may be pointing in Kenny’s direction had long been vandalised by the city’s legendarily bored youth. He didn’t want to get Kenny in trouble. That wasn’t what this was about.

Finally, after a full and precise further ten minutes, Kenny shimmied down off the fountainhead, and out of the basin. He checked each street of the crossroads one last time, before disappearing into the dark, his shorts visibly slipping into the crevice of his backside as he went.

Jools was standing in the doorway of the bedroom.

‘Are you coming to bed, hon?’ she asked. ‘How come the window’s open, anyway? It’s cold. I can feel it in bed.’

‘Yeah,’ said Josh. ‘Just felt like some air, sorry.’

He kissed her and she smiled. He closed the window as she went back to bed.

Kenny did not seem as happy with his customary word of the day the next morning. There was as an air of disappointment as he shuffled out of the shop, noteless, the usual spring in his step unavoidably absent.

At first Josh thought he might have beaten him with that one simple act, and he would not return. But there he was the next morning, sprightly as ever, kissing and hugging Jools as usual, full of the joys of his own delusion. Whatever regrets Josh had over his act of mischief left him as he observed his nemesis back on form, dirty and inappropriate and mad. Another note was required.

Over the next couple of weeks, Josh could often be found at his living room window, round about twelve. Jools was initially suspicious, but soon came to expect it, even seeming slightly anxious if he came straight to bed without standing there for a while beforehand.

At first, Josh kept things simple, a note instructing attendance at the fountain at midnight, followed by a dispiriting day of non-communication, followed by another note. Soon though, he could see that his victim was getting used to this pattern, and was going to have to shake things up a bit.

Kenny was visibly disturbed on his third day without contact with Rose, only to be overjoyed by its reestablishment on the next. There was a twist though. He had to take flowers. Sure enough, at midnight, Josh could see him by the fountain, looking every way, his puny bunch of stolen flowers wilting in his hand. The very next day another note would be found, instructing him to wear a hat.

As the game went on, Kenny seemed more and more excited by the morning ritual, no longer bothering to slobber over Jools on the way in, and even the ten past ten rule proved a trial. Now he could be found standing outside the shop doorway at ten, shuffling by the window, desperately waiting to be let in.

Josh began to have more fun with his instructions. He surprised himself with his capacity for thinking of silly things for Kenny to do, and how little it troubled his conscience to do so. Each note to Kenny became a succinct demand for his humiliation. ‘Circle the fountain six times and lie down on the ground.’ ‘Touch the top of the fountainhead and shout “zip-a-dee-doo-dah!”’ ‘Stand on one leg for five minutes, change leg, then run up the high street as fast as you can.’ Always, to prove his love to ‘Rose’.

It was not until Josh found himself writing a note instructing Kenny to turn up in top hat and tails wearing a bowtie, but no trousers, that he knew it had gone far enough. I may as well write ‘yellow stockinged and cross-gartered’ he thought. But I am no Feste. The game was over. It was time to reveal all.

To this end, Josh wrote a near repetition of his first note, requesting Kenny’s presence at the fountain at midnight, yet feeling too guilty to sign it ‘Rose’. He placed it over the appropriate word, running his finger over the opposing side of the sticky strip on the Post-It to fix it down, and closed the book.

Five past midnight at the fountain, Kenny extended his neck, looking this way and that. The simplicity of the command that day had encouraged him. Maybe the test was over. Maybe tonight he would at last get to meet Rose.

All the while, multiplications of three and five burbled away at the back of his brain as, even without fully realising it, he counted the street lights, the paving stones, the windows above each shop: putting them through his system, neutralising the bad with the good. A voice in his head repeated a simple mathematical pattern, constantly, as it did all day, every day, and had done so since it first interrupted his thoughts in the foggy, far-off confused days of his youth. At first it frightened him, until he finally obeyed its command and found that the numbers arranged the whole universe into an orderly pattern, and it all suddenly made perfect sense.

A figure was approaching. Could this be… no, it was a man: longhaired, squat and chubby. He knew this man. It was… yes, Josh, from the bookshop. What was he doing out this late?

Kenny waved at Josh. Josh nodded back. Soon, he was by the fountain, walking round, it seemed, to talk to Kenny. Kenny thought this was unusual. People tended to always edge away from him when he approached, as he made his rounds throughout the day of his various special places, looking for the messages that the universe had left him. He never thought of it as a bad thing, but still, the experience of someone walking towards him, apparently with the express purpose of speaking to him was unnerving.

‘Hi Kenny,’ said Josh, shuffling up to him with his hands in pockets, looking down at the ground through his oval glasses and hair.

‘Hello Josh,’ said Kenny, searching his mind for the distant memory of the days before the universe started talking to him, when he had casual conversations with people, and how they went. ‘Out for a stroll?’

‘Ah, not really, no,’ said Josh. ‘Actually, I’ve sort of come to speak to you, really.’


‘Ah, yeah, listen, you know you’ve been getting… notes, um, in the books recently.’

‘Yes, notes from Rose, yes.’

‘Yeah, ah, that’s the thing, you see Kenny. They’re not really from Rose, they’re… the thing is Kenny, they’re from me.’

‘Oh, ok.’

‘Yeah, I just kind of wanted to, well, make a point, really. About, you know, how if you look for patterns and things you’ll find them, and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s all just random, and I wanted to get you to realise that.’

‘Right, ok.’

‘Yeah, I just kind of wanted to shock you into seeing… actually you don’t seem that shocked.’

‘No, not at all. I mean it’s just the universe leading me to Rose, through you.’

‘No Kenny, it wasn’t the universe, and it wasn’t Rose. Rose didn’t want you to turn up here and do all these weird things. Look, there is no Rose. It was all just me, trying to get you to see that you’ve built up this whole thing in your head about the universe and Rose, but you’ve got so caught up in it you can’t tell what’s real anymore. Can’t you see, Kenny, I tricked you. I took it too far and I’m sorry, but it’s all a hoax. Don’t you get it?’

Kenny shook his head. ‘Well, I can see what you’re saying, but I mean, it’s obvious to me that it’s all a test to see if I’m worthy of Rose’s love. It doesn’t really change anything.’

‘So you’ll be back in the shop tomorrow?’

‘Oh, yes, most definitely. There might be another note.’

‘There won’t be any more notes, Kenny.’

‘Oh, you never know…’

‘No, there won’t be because I won’t write them. And… look, basically Kenny, I don’t want you coming in the shop any more.’

‘Right, ok.’

‘Yeah, I mean you never buy anything, and well, I just don’t want you in the shop any more, sorry.’

‘That’s ok.’

‘You’re not upset?’

‘No,’ said Kenny, ‘it’s just the universe telling me that I should look for its messages in another place, that’s all.’

Josh nodded. He held his hand out. Kenny realised he was meant to shake it and did so. Josh smiled at him awkwardly. ‘Well, good luck,’ he said.

Josh walked away, quickly and with larger strides than his normal gait, in the direction of the bookshop. Kenny watched him for a minute, looked in all directions for Rose one last time, turned, and went.

Ten o’clock the next morning, Josh and Jools opened up the shop as usual. Josh unlocked the door and turned on the electric till, while Jools began her first sweep of fixing the displays and tidying the already immaculately ordered shelves. Josh looked at the clock, counting the minutes until, what was to be, even taking into account the now-shameful personal failings on his part that brought it about, a beautiful moment: their first Kenny-less morning in years.

Or so he thought. At eight minutes past ten, Josh, to his horror, saw through the window, walking towards the shop from his usual direction, the stringy, barely-clad form of Kenny. Why couldn’t it be simple? Was he going to hover for two minutes, then attempt entry at ten past? Would Josh have to physically restrain him from entering? But Kenny kept on walking. He didn’t even glance in the shop window.

Nine minutes past. Ten minutes. The second hand passed the number twelve on the clock. And nothing happened. They were alone, the two of them, just as it was meant to be, in their beautiful shop.

At thirteen minutes past, Jools was pricing new stock when she looked up at the clock.

‘Where’s Kenny?’ she said. ‘He should be here by now.’

‘I dunno,’ said Josh, ‘maybe he’s running late.’

‘Kenny’s never late,’ said Jools, ‘something must have happened.’

‘I’m sure he’s fine,’ said Josh.

Jools finished pricing the books at speed and placed them in their appropriate places on the shelves. Then she began tidying. Again. The very same shelves she had checked not ten minutes before were given another going-over. As she ran her hand over every book in every row of the ‘Military History’ section, she seemed to be mumbling something to herself. And she got faster, and faster as she went, a panicked look in her eyes telling Josh that something was wrong.

He softly stood up from behind the till and walked towards her. He could hear what she was saying now, over and over again. ‘Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here. Ten past ten but Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here…’

Josh seized her by the shoulders. She tried to continue with her tidying, but found she could not move.

‘Jools,’ said Josh, gently. ‘Kenny won’t be coming in the shop any more. I told him not to.’

‘You did what?’ she gasped.

‘I told him not to come in here any more. See, I wanted to show him that all this stuff about the universe telling him stuff through our books was silly, so I played a kind of trick on him. I left notes, pretending they were –’

‘You don’t know what you’ve done!’ screamed Jools. She broke free from Josh’s grip. She pulled the bookcase in front of her over. Josh jumped out of the way as the books hit the floor with an awful thud, a second before the bookcase did. By the time he had regained his balance, Jools had pulled down a second bookcase, and he had to wrestle her away from a third, both of them falling into the spill of hardbacks as they fought.

‘Jools, calm down please!’ said Josh. ‘It’s ok, everything’s fine. It’s just that Kenny won’t be coming in anymore. You never did like him kissing you, and it’s not like he ever bought anything…’

Jools was not listening. She just lay there beside him, trying to escape his grip, repeating, ‘What have you done? What have you done?’

‘Shhh…’ said Josh. ‘It’s ok. Everything’s fine. I’m here…’

Jools looked at him with flaming eyes. ‘I don’t want you,’ she cried, ‘I need Kenny!’ The last word came out a horrible, primal bark.

Josh sensed that she had stopped struggling. He let her arms go. As he stood up, she lay there, sobbing, among the books.

Josh watched her awhile, not sure whether it was ok to leave her. Then, without her noticing, he grabbed his jacket from behind the staff door, and left the shop, beginning his search of the high street: going up and down it, in and out of every place, hoping desperately to find Kenny. Find him, so that everything in the shop could be beautiful again.