*

The Body In The Bed

TO BE PUBLISHED IN 2012 – ‘THE LAST BALCONY’ COLLECTION (The InkerMen Press)

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Connections

Walking into that house was not unlike coming home – and after a lifeful of disasters, it was good to feel everything panning out at last. Everybody deserves at least one lucky streak. So, as soon as I passed through the double-doored entrance, which had been left partially open, I felt instantly that I needed to turn straight back, if only to find the Estate Agent to tell him I would definitely have it at the asking price. And what did indeed the price ask? Only a few years of self-deprivation, until my inheritance worked itself through the system.

Inside the house, as well as darkness, there was a faint but pervasive scent, rather like flowers left fractionally too long in the vase. Indeed, I questioned my own motives of walking into the house without permission – although it did have a For Sale sign outside. Outside, its dark brown roofs had clambered towards a henge of chimneystacks, where I imagined my future children playing, as the dare-devils they would surely become. The walls that were half hidden by the shadow of the overhanging gutter were constructed from larger than normal bricks with generous fillings of grey cement – and, each about a yard apart, were set fluted pillars of what appeared to be creosoted wood. The garden path had led me, between rows of bending sunflowers, towards those double doors, doors which seemed to be the open covers of a black book with its narrow spine pointing right out at me. However, I could not read the title until I arrived close up and discovered it was not a title at all but the glimmering of a candleflame being carried up the long winding stairs to the first landing. The light disappeared as soon as I thought I knew it was a candleflame. I had slipped the latch of the garden gate with some surprising ease – after having previously negotiated some dreadful roofed alley-ways which led from the centre of the city. What I had spotted roosting on one of the chimneystacks was not a TV aerial, but something with a similar configuration: angular bones and a tiny beating heart: brooding as it gnawed upon a gable-post: balanced upon splayed elbows.

I would have come through Hell to reach my ideal home and, having arrived there, I obliterated all idea that evil lived in or on it. It was indeed a family house being sold by an Estate Agent in a normal city. The heady scent of dying flowers was stronger as I backed along the hallway searching for a light switch. Yes, yes, my inheritance would surely pay for this place. No fear of that. But, I would have a few years to wait, since my Maiden Aunt was showing no promise of death, as yet. To borrow on the strength of an inheritance, young man, the consultants had told me, was difficult, because no financial institution worth its salt would accept as security the fortunes of death, especially if connected with the continuation of an auntie’s good will to her nephew.

For a moment, I believed I was still in the garden. The sky had disappeared altogether, leaving a black hole in its stead. The wafting of a sound like sea in the treetops became noticeable the further I edged towards the foot of the stairs, where the faltering candleflame had earlier climbed. Pull yourself together, young man, you were inside a house where you should never have ventured. You were not invited. Go back to the garden, where the flowers and daylight should still be fighting back the onset of darkness. Return down the garden path. Go back, young man, and found your dynasty amid a destiny elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I heard the stairs creaking, as if somebody was passing down them towards me – or some*thing* – or, even, something else.

“Who’s there?” I asked in the faintest whisper, in case it heard me.

No answer. Whatever it was, it did not have the courtesy to renew its candleflame to shine up its face and allow me to recognise it. “But I never had a candleflame in the first place,” it would snarl into my ear on eventually finding my ear.

“I saw the candleflame, when I came down the garden path,” I insisted, “like the gold lettering on the spine of a battered black book.”

When I had at first come to that city, the last thing I had expected was an adventure. I had arrived in search of a home, in some ordinary backwater close to an underground station. I had not anticipated actually having to crawl along the train-tunnels to get there. What else could one do, when there was literally nobody around to work the London Transport, with property prices in the city being so sky high? All to do with the base bank rate, my consultants had told me. My adventure was turning out to have no start nor end. Only an ever-expanding middle.

I remembered I had some matches in my pocket, for which I proceeded to fumble. Eventually, I produced a short-lived flame and saw sitting on the intricately carved stairs an entity with wide wire whiskers which turned widdershins and clockworkwise: the rest of its body not a body at all but a series of stair-rods erecting themselves from the treads. It was evidently related to the thing I had spotted brooding on the chimneystack when first I approached the house.

Travelling to the city, originally, had been a trial in itself. I hailed from north of the cotton mills, and all connections had to be arranged by my Maiden Aunt, she and I poring over the thick timetables for months in advance, till we both suffered the same small print headache. It all worked, though. Go forth, young man, and forge your connections. And so I did, bribing station workmen to bend the points in the direction I wanted to proceed and waving at railway children from the carriage, beckoning them to send their schoolfriends ahead into the tunnels to clear away the obstacles that old rail workings often had. In hindsight, I hope the wheels were soft on them kids.

Could this be the Estate Agent squatting on the stairs? Or a policeman, having been tipped off in advance about my breaking and entering? But I did not break anything, officer.

“Climb to the bedrooms, young man,” the entity seemed to indicate with one of its bony metal feelers. It clanked and churned. It stepped aside, only to become part and parcel of the iron banisters.

All that in the flame of one match?

The stairs wound up for longer than I anticipated and I was sure they missed out floors, heading me towards the topmost attic, giving me no choice but to follow a destiny that was only at its planning stage. As I ascended, the banisters closed behind me, of which ratchetting only well-oiled machinery could boast. It gradually grew lighter, for sky was filtering through the ill-made roof.

I had bid farewell to my Maiden Aunt with a light kiss on the wrinkled petal of her cheek. She sat buried in her four-poster bed, surrounded by a lifetime’s knick-knacks and her pen. She took me by the hand telling me to beware the city down south: “It’s like a big cobweb of tracks, cantilever bridges, tunnels and flyovers, and buildings too tall for their own good.” She had always had a wondeful turn of phrase and with her words ringing in my ears, I had entered upon the connections. Click, clack, click, clack, they went. And the roof was swelling down upon me, threatening to make the attic nothing but a room with no space, or a space with no room. Desperately, I pushed upwards. Changing direction, I realised that effort was now required elsewhere, and I pushed with straining muscles against the rising floor. I heard the crunching of my bones, as they splintered into my flesh. There was a war raging within my very body, so I quickly changed the track-points and escaped like a ghost down the empty stairs, leaving the rest of myself to its own devices.

It was easy now, because I had become the haunter and the house the haunted, instead of vice versa. With the likes of a ghost loitering along the stairways, the Estate Agent would find it even harder to sell. For a while, it didn’t seem to matter that all this may have been a story in a book into which I had inadvertently stumbled. But there was one vital connection I had missed till it was too late – the despicable class of person who was to read the story. I suppose it could have been worse: I could have become a mere image on a small flickering screen in the corner of that person’s room – fed by monsters to monsters – with no connection between except the TV aerial.

Somewhere else, I sensed that a little bit of me cried its heart out. And an old lady took off her wire glasses so as she couldn’t see the tears.

(published ‘The Stygian Dreamhouse’ 1988)

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Crimson Chintz

The parlour was so sticky, its wallpaper seemed to be sliding off, even as I watched. But for what reason the woman had put me in the parlour I did not even question—since I had not seen the rest of the house.

She had given the impression of being in charge—not as an owner, more as a caretaker—whilst I had not yet taken the opportunity to examine the parlour. However, although I was someone normally averse to details, I did notice that the décor was decidedly choosy and chintzy—if blemished by blisters and peelings.

The woman suddenly re-entered with a feather-tickler on a stick, evidently uncaring whether a visitor might be disturbed by an environment of domestic chores or a pervasive aura of house-pride.

“Are you comfy for a moment?” she asked, digging, as far as feathers could dig, into one of the four top corners of the parlour—if such corners were indeed corners at all, judging by their being rather more like rounded alcoves-in-the-air. I nodded at her, failing to understand why a mere moment of my comfort was her concern.

A mere moment passed without duration … and neither comfort nor discomfort were important during such an arguable length of time. Yet I nodded again and the whole room seemed to nod with me, by some quirk of eyesight.

I knew that a question needed an answer even if the answer was only necessary to ensure the question was asked. Any answer would have sufficed to square the circle.

Meanwhile, time did not fail to pass, in spite of consisting of nothing but overlapping moments. The woman drifted from my consciousness while, presumably, she had a go at other rooms nearby: rooms which I hadn’t been able to check for sufficient viability or tenability as rooms, let alone the dust to warrant such an attack from her duster.

And I started to have a nosebleed: a nosebleed in the true sense where my whole body bled while my nose stayed essentially dry-nostrilled.

The nose, being merely a conduit, bled only inasmuch as its attachment, the body, bled. The nose wasn’t cut. Something in the body gushed forth, employing the nose as an outlet. Unlike in the case of a nose, a finger could only bleed if the finger itself were injured. My nostrils were simply straws or syphons.

“Are you allright, my love?”

The woman spoke, upon returning to the parlour, in evident search of her yellow duster. She had noticed my distress: a distress which was redoubled by her use of an affectionate affectation of me being her ‘love’. And the sickly backflow taste at the root of my nostrils was causing me to gag on the breath I couldn’t quite catch.

“I’ll put a cold copper coin down your back,” she added, “since nosebleeds can otherwise be a devil to stop.”

Abruptly, I choked on a spasm and threw a spray of abstract strawberries upon the wallpaper.

“There’ll be a devil to pay,” she continued, making me think she was hung up on devils.

It eventually dawned on me the reason for the existence of the choice of the decrepit chintzy room and for my presence therein. I saw it in her eyes. I saw that I was seeing her skull from inside her skull, a sight that effectively followed the drift of the brain’s own sight of seeing it. Better get on with the housework, before my husband comes home from the office. I must scrape the grey grime off the innermost alcove with the edge of the hoover nozzle—then let its vacuum suck up the wayward thoughts with which poor menopausal women like me are beset.

Meanwhile, am I simply her fancy man, for when her husband’s away? Or am I a night creature of complex motives, intent on sniffing out the fading residue of her seeping blood?

No answer from the room. Only the sound of a hoover breathing, the gentle popping of embolisms from under the wall-paper and bone china cracking in the distant scullery.

“Each month, there’s a devil to pay.” From HORRORMONES by Rachel Mildeyes

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