Gifted

He stared down the barrel of the camera and confessed it all. He apologised, deeply, through muted sobs, for misleading us. For deceiving every one of us so cruelly. For making a mockery of his mystic art. All lies.

And she stared on from the wings. A scorching stare; a poisonous, enthralling smile.

He shook; whether with guilt or with shame or with fear, none could tell. The paper in his hand, from which he read, rustled noisily. His eyes told of the threat of vacillation, but he stayed the course of curious repentance.  And every now and then she exhaled steadily from her position, just over his right shoulder.

“I have caused the deaths of one-thousand, two-hundred and six animals; large and small. Many perished in unimaginable agony.” His lip quivered but he muddled on “A total of seventeen human minds and souls have been lost to my art … my act. These wretches are now with the devil. I am a liar. I am a charlatan. I have masqueraded as a masterful peddler of the wonderful. But I am a vile deceiver. My magic is all illusion. My feats of the impossible, mere theatre.”

The nation drew breath together. Betrayal. The wonder trickled away like so much spilt milk. All fabrication and deception and puffs of smoke, now roiling away. And people were angry.

“There is a basement…” His words caught in his throat. He stopped, broke and recomposed himself. “And that’s where the children are. All of them. You see, it was not enchantment but a sham. A show. And they are there. They are all there.”

As the camera panned closer to his face – a mechanical gesture of incredulity –  the noise of disruption from without the bolted studio doors began and rose rapidly. A rumble of disquiet, becoming, steadily, a chaos of voices; demanding the return of their trust and the salvation of their now-lacerated experience. And they were sharpening their knives.

And in the wings, her smile shrank and a final sigh signified her satisfaction. With him since her youth. Daughter of the first innocent woman who went mad by his trusted hand. This young woman held his secrets like a bouquet and watched them wither with time. And as the doors began to buckle; and just before the anger of the deceived was realised upon the man’s feeble, old body; this deathly posy of secrets was handed back to the world. By her.

Wearing the clothes in which he’d dressed and kept her. Revealing, at last, her lucidity. The magician’s assistant.

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Connivance

It is a sacred bond, marriage. A union which tangles the souls and bodies of those in wedlock. We are the keepers of each other. It is something I know. Something I have grown to know.

It is true that I have spent so many anxious evenings, after sun down, considering fleeing; leaving the struggle behind. But as soon as the thought is processed, the wardrobe opened, the carry case half-stuffed with garments, he’s home. Freshly-energised and hot with the new night’s potential.

We have lived this way for three years; I made my choice. To say there is nothing of regret in my decision would be to lie to myself entirely. I used to think our nocturnal rendezvous romantic. Passionate and deliberately different. This otherness, this separation from all I’d know before him, sealed the deal. But these have long-since burned out. And he now seeks the company of others in those black hours.

Even our wedding took place under the stars, with only a few insignificant and anonymous witnesses. He is the only man I’ve ever truly loved. And when I revisit these thoughts, I’m called down from the ledge. I know that I’m mad to want to leave. I start to see the rationality in his explanations; his early confessions; his claims of necessity and survival and of an unslakable hunger. And I begin to accept him all over again. Love conquers.

But then the morning news comes and another animal’s throat has been torn out. Some stray or other has been evicerated and left on waste land.

And things far, far worse. Things I cannot bring myself to think of. There are so many homeless wretches in this city and I thank Holy God, knowing what I now know, that we have a roof over our heads. Though it seems that he’s rarely under it.

I’ll keep turning the other way. Both my eyes are blind.

He sleeps through the day.

From a dream

and the first thing I thought when I came to was that my head didn’t hurt and that this was peculiar as I was sure it had been a terrible fall and I was certain that I briefly felt the base of my cranium crash hard against something (the bathtub?) and it was also strange, I thought, that I was standing but the sense of urgency and need for haste was overwhelming so I left the bathroom quickly and moved downstairs quickly and before I knew it I was in the foyer and the Famous Woman was waiting for me already

and I turned about me and saw that Belle was looking around impatiently and I called out to her and told her I wouldn’t be long and the Famous Woman smiled kindly at me and she said we needed to hurry and I called out to Belle and she looked beautiful and I remembered us as two young people and I realised, again, that I loved her

and the Famous Woman took my hand and we walked out of the foyer and up a long, old staircase and the dust smelled like cinnamon and we arrived on a corridor and the Famous Woman told me Belle would follow us and we walked past several blue doors and behind them I thought I could hear music and laughing and we passed some black doors and I was sure I could hear screaming and tearing and agony and pain and I did not dare to look down because I knew I would see the thick, tarry pool of old blood which seeped from under it

and the Famous Woman told me we needed to hurry but I had to move closer to the black doors and I thought I heard names I knew, shouted loudly over the din of pain and suffering, and it made me miss Belle and I had to move closer still

and I heard scratching and ripping and I could smell something sour which filled my nostrils and made me think of kitchens and of a decision to be a better person in the future and of a terrible New Year’s Eve and of arguments with my parents and of regrets and of Sunday evenings before school as a boy and I moved away from the door and realised I was weeping and the Famous Woman put her arm around me and led me away from the black doors

and we arrived upstairs; a huge courtyard-shaped room with seating along the edge and nothing in the centre and a few people looking in my direction and I was still weeping and the feeling of the Famous Woman’s arm around my shoulder made me feel better but I longed, now, to see Belle and I turned and saw a window at the back of the room and I could see Belle and there were others there and I loved each of them and they loved me

and I moved towards the window and shouted out and I saw Belle was sad and shaking and I wanted to go to her

and I turned towards where the Famous Woman was now sitting and she smiled kindly to me and she beckoned me to sit down and I moved and I sat and she said “There: isn’t that better?” and she reached out her hand and I realised

and I didn’t want to but I realised

and I looked into the Famous Woman’s eyes and she was sad and welcoming and I asked her and she said it didn’t matter and I asked again and I said “Am I dead?” and she said “It doesn’t matter” and I looked at the window and I wanted to go to it and I asked if the people there, the people I loved, come come into the courtyard-shaped room and she said they could not

and I looked at the Famous Woman again and I was weeping and she smiled kindly and she understood and I asked her what had happened because I could not remember and she told me and I understood and I wept again

and she said “You had a terrible fall. In the bathroom. You hit your head, hard.” and she stopped smiling and she said “They didn’t get to you in time.”

and I understood

and I remembered Belle and I remembered us as two young people

and the Famous Woman put her arms around me again and everything started to drift away and I forgot what I’d asked and I felt calm and nothing hurt

and the Famous Woman said “There: isn’t that better?”

The arrangements

“It was not like that at all, sir. Dr Hopkins was nice to us all. Good. A good man. And the arrangements, sir, were optional. Not one of us was forced into anything. Not one.”
“Can you explain a few details for me, Bobby.”
“I can certainly try, sir.”
“We found things in that basement.”
“Things, sir?”
“Things, Bobby. Experiments. Test tubes. Chemicals. Equipment. And other things.”
“Part of [inaudible on tape]”
“Could you speak up, Bobby?”
“Sir – it was part of the arrangements, sir.”
“Can you explain any of his…any of Dr Hopkins’ experiments to us, Bobby? There was an awful lot of … waste in the basement [inaudible on tape] incinerator. What exactly was happening down there?”
“That was his business, sir. His affairs. I only ever found my way down there by mistake. We have the run of the place. The run of the whole house, sir. Absolute freedom. Apart from his workshop, sir. Before he found me, sir, I had nothing. No prospects. No money. No clothes, even.”
“And this was part of your arrangement? He gave you material possessions?”
“Yes. Not just bits of fabric or scraps of food, sir…”
“And how many others were there in the house?”
“Sir?”
“How many other people lived in the mansion with you and Hopkins?”
“It altered. Sometimes there were ten, other times, thirty. Sometimes just two or three.”
“And how long did people stay?”
“It depended. Depended on their [inaudible on tape].”
“Sometimes they left?”
“Yes. They left and [inaudible on tape].”
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes they were there and the next minute they weren’t. The Doctor – he was a good man sir – said he’d set something up for them outside.”
“Were you ever offered…”
“No, sir. The Doctor said I was too old to fend for myself. Besides [inaudible on tape] too long. Too dark. Too cold.”
“Bobby, I have more people to speak to. I need you to remain here. You’re not in any trouble, at the moment, but the Doctor is in plenty. What you think about him, what he offered you, was wrong, Bobby. I need just a few pieces of information…”
“Sir, he’s a good man. He fixed me. Fixed me and cared for me and I’m alive now ‘cause of him. Due to his kindness.”
“But that came at a price, Bobby?”
“An arrangement, sir. Half me. Half him. We met in the middle. I got my clothes, [inaudible on tape] my room, my food, my friends, my time.”
“And he took something from you? Took something from each of you.”
“As part of the arrangement, sir, yes, sir.”
[Disturbance on tape]
“For the benefit of the tape, Bobby, could explain what you gave in return? What your side of the arrangement involved? [Pause on tape] What did he take, Bobby? What did the Doctor take from you?”
“Well, sir … ”
[Disturbance on tape].
“We didn’t get that Bobby, once more could you speak up?”
“My eyes, sir. He took my eyes.”

The last patient of St Agatha’s

The night porter was too late. He’d heard the feeble clang of the old servants bell and had sped immediately to the sixth floor where he knew Dr Constantine to be conducting his rounds. The storm had presented many delays to the old man’s journey but, a kindly and good-hearted physician, he finally arrived and proceeded to creep from room to room, checking on the slumbering and dozing patients.

The nurses at St Agatha’s had named her Emily though the child herself had never spoken to identify herself. On leaving the hospital for the evening, her clothes claggy with the close evening heat, Sister Gould spotted something apparently foraging in the undergrowth of the hospital garden. She approached the animal, alarmed but not deterred by its wild thrashing in the foliage, and discovered it to be human; a small girl with tattered clothes and too many scrapes and cuts to count. Her eyes were balled so tightly that for a moment the sister assumed they were lost to her. The poor mite scrambled and cowered at the good nurse’s touch. She looked somehow harangued or even pursued by some unseen thing. As if she were scratching at the very ground to shelter from the horrid, plaguing presence.

The Sister knew the timing to be fortuitous for the storm was building to a tremendous crescendo overhead. She brought the girl in for warmth, food and fresh clothing. She was cleaned and a large, secure room was found. The young, wretched thing was made as comfortable as possible. The big oak door was locked for the child’s safety, with only the senior medical staff being in possession of a key.

At no point did she open her eyes, as if she were trapping something within her head; nor did she speak a word. On occasion, a weak but gutturral hiss would come forth from her throat. Coupled with this, the nurses observed how the eyeballs of the child convulsed and flicked from side to side under the thin lids and she writhed and struggled until the hissing had passed.

When he had finally surmounted the storm and arrived at his place of work, the Doctor threw himself through the hospital’s front door, peeled off his coat and immediately went about his rounds. Everything proceeded with a banal regularity and only the intrigue of the new patient kept the old man’s full attention.

An hour passed and the creaking grandfather clock in the staff quarters announced midnight . And moments afterwards, the servants bell began its bitter panic, summoning the night porter.

Upon arriving at the room where Emily had been housed, the porter found the door wide open; nor was the girl anywhere to be found within. The Doctor lay on the ground, groaning. His throat was slick with blood from the many tears and gashes that decorated it. He gurgled and a strange, brown foam had collected about his mouth. One of the porters knelt beside him to listen to his attempts at words. A crack of thunder drowned the language out.

“Doctor, where is the child?”
“Child…!” the doctor tried.
“Yes sir. Where is little Emily? Is she safe from harm sir?”
“The thing….” There was a dreadful pause.

The porter thought the old man dead and feared awfully for poor Emily’s safety. What manner of creature had taken her?

“The thing … in that room …” Again, sound and light ricocheted around the old building. Finally, the Doctor summoned his final reserves of energy and shrieked out with staggering volume: 

“THE THING…IN THAT ROOM…IS NOT A CHILD!”

Another crack of thunder and a startling flash of lightning illuminated every hallway; a hundred fuses were shorted in a single instant.

The hospital was plunged into darkness.

The night porter felt the Doctor stiffen in his arms; heard his final groans and some ghastly rattle from deep inside him. And then, silence.

Somewhere, over his shoulder in the darkness of the ancient corridor, a sound infected the porter’s ear; the growing, clinging menace of an animal-like hiss… 

Edward

Edward has talked his mouth inside out and now he has no mouth at all!

Here is a man who had mastered the pernicious art of conversation-murder, using his knowledge (and not his wisdom, for he has none) to garrote the innocent and the intrigued; to pounce upon idle chatter and suffocate the life out of it; to drain a topic of its curiousness (for that is a subject’s lifeblood!) and leave only a dried and dusty husk-like corpse with not even enough flesh for pedants to pick at.

Ignore the tears collecting in his eyes. He was warned this may happen. Serves him right.

Agape

Ambrose asked the Abbot: “Will God tempt me with lurid visions of my own desires?”
He received his answer: “No, child. Only the Devil.”
Ambrose muttered: “Then what good is He?” and his head soared heavenward with the insolence.

Ambrose asked the Abbot: “Does the Devil know my thoughts? Can he see inside my mind?”
He received his answer: “No, child. Only God.”
Ambrose muttered: “Then what danger is he?” and his flattened heart fluttered to the earth.

Just then, God sent down his most beauteous angel, dressed only in Argon; revealing His benevolence to Ambrose. And the Devil, jolted from his abeyance, stopped his thumbs and hot-footed it from Hell; desperate to catch a peek inside the monk’s tumescent eyes.

Mine

The man awoke to sublime darkness and felt the wetness of the rock beneath his body. Some foul miasma filled his nostrils and the only sound was the wheezing chaos of his own breathing; like a dull blade upon grindstone. Something was clamouring in his lungs, something dustlike and unwelcome, protesting against the oxygen that he struggled to inhale. After a few moment he began to calm, though the close, damp air was suffocating and he had not the least idea where he was. Suddenly there came a sound from the blackness. It sounded to him like a muffled laugh. An eerie, mirthless giggle through, perhaps, some thick rag. There was a deafening pause. Again the sound came. Another pause followed by a blinding light as a match, somewhere close by, blinked into being.

He remembered a walk in the countryside with her. A detour. An adventure. Where was she now? Was she safe?

When the matchlight faded some he saw the figure in front of him and could not cry out. He struggled to get up, to move away, to roll to one side, but every ounce of energy left his body in that vital instant. The mask, the tattered garments, the glint of the pickaxe in the muted glow of the flame. The figure knelt and at its feet lay several dusty sticks of dynamite. Its left hand was littered with potholes and scabs. Its right hand was an image of perfection, as if preserved for some saintly or diabolical purpose. He closed his eyes to shut out the image and heard the laugh again. And he heard stifled words spoken inside the mask. “Dnff hmmfff fffsst wmmff”.

He remembered champagne, a cave, the ring. He remembered a figure lurking in the darkness. An explosion.

He asked, calmly, where he was. How he came to be here. If he could leave.

Darkness. Another match. The figure knelt motionless and its breathing could be heard, rising deeply and falling fast; rasping in its chest.

It stood up straight and rested on its pickaxe, looking almost respectable, gentlemanly. And then came that terrible chuckle from within, demolishing hope. It moved its scarred hand up to its mask and pulled it away. The man saw its face and found his voice but did not recognise the strange, animal sounds he produced. The tiny flame faltered but he could still see the wretched visage in noxious, neon tones inside his eyelids. As the light dissolved he saw, some distance into the cave, what resembled a large heap of human clothing. He begged it to put the mask on again. It laughed. Heartily and with feeling. He could hear the shuffled and dull clunk of fabric and rubber: it was obliging his request.

And, as it did so, the man thought he heard it speak; a strange, serene whisper.

And he thought it said: “You’ll stay here now.”

Uncle Harry – A Christmas Tale

I never posted that Christmas card.

He would arrive at our home every Christmas eve, push his vacant face up against the back window and stand in the same spot until somebody noticed him. On a few occasions he had remained there for hours; waiting to be let inside. One of my earliest memories (it sticks to the inside of my head like fly paper) is returning home after a carol service and being the first to enter our cosy little living room.  I remember, clear as a snow-kissed morning, glancing and the silhouette of our Christmas tree with gentle awe. Then, something caught my eye outside. I turned my head toward the window. What I saw chilled my young bones. There, pressed against the glass, was his face.

I hated it. And I hated him. My father explained to me, as well as one can to a child, that Uncle Harry was a very sad and tired man. “Remember!” he exclaimed. “Aunt Matilda left him on Christmas eve. He needs to be around his family at this time of year.” I retorted that, had I been Aunt Matilda, I wouldn’t have left it until Christmas to leave him. I was sent to bed without supper that night.

I felt that he soured Christmas, not least by his horrid, leering arrivals but by his very presence. He seemed to absorb all of the love from our bellies and refuse to let it even flicker across his wide, cruel face. He barely spoke, just lingered. He drank too much and, when he did open his mouth, it was only to spout nasty family secrets or stuff his vile face with festive food.

When I was ten years old, Father decided that he would take my mother and me (for we were only a small family) to a beautiful log cabin in a wooded area of rural Germany for Christmas. Uncle Harry, of course, would be invited. At this second nugget of news, my soul fell to my feet. Father wrote Uncle Harry a note, for he did not own a telephone, and stuffed it inside his Christmas card. The letter explained where we would be going and that, if Harry should like to join us, he would be most welcome but that he would have to arrive the day before Christmas eve. The responsibility to post our family cards fell to me that year.

But Uncle Harry’s card, I’m somewhat ashamed to tell, found its home at the bottom of the river which ran through our little village.

Father remarked that he was rather disappointed that Harry did not peer through the back window on 23rd December. Nevertheless, I read something of relief on his face that Christmas. I felt I had done a good turn. Uncle Harry would arrive, realise we were absent, and leave for his own, miserable home. He might even catch a chill standing in the snow!

When we returned home on the second of January, full of the joys of the season, I felt that we were a family refreshed. It was truly the brightest and most enjoyable Christmas I had ever had. I was the first to run into the living room, eager to assemble my brand new train set on our carpet. I scampered into the room and was about to skid to the floor when something caught my eye at the window. Uncle Harry. There he stood, leering in, as was his way. I covered my mouth the prevent a shriek from escaping. The same cruel eyes, the same lifeless, flat features pressed against the glass.

He had frozen to death and stood propped against the window, rigid from the cold.

*

I mention this now with a chill in my very fibre; I write it down with a trembling hand. It has plagued my thoughts for many years – such insurmountable guilt! Now, a married man of thirty-seven and with two children of my own, something terrible has cemented my childhood deed. I found myself, this Christmas, away from my darlings on business. I had, of course, been provided with accommodation. My professional dealings involve sales to Europe and I was required to attend a black tie celebration on Christmas eve, with a number of German clients, in a retreat near Baden-Württemberg. I promised to stay in touch with my beloved family throughout my stay, heartbroken as I was to be away from them over the festive period.

My eldest child, Jonathan, had specifically taught me how to take, process and send photographs on my laptop computer – hopeless as I am with such things. I thought, before I left for the dinner, I would take a photo of myself in all of my finery and send it across to my family. I stood next to the fire place, making sure that the gorgeous winter scene outside, illuminated with Christmas lights in the darkness, would be visible through the window above my shoulder. I set up the camera on the tripod, selected the timer function and posed. I could not, of course, get the damn thing to show me the image itself afterwards. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to extract the file and send it home, praying that confounded thing had worked.

The morning of Christmas arrived and the phone roused me from my deep sleep (a brandy too many at the dinner). It was my darling wife, Carla. I asked after the children who, too engrossed with what Santa had brought them, felt no need to come to the phone. I then wished my wife a Merry Christmas and told her I would be home soon. She told me, in return, that she loved me and that I looked very handsome in the photograph I’d sent. I was very pleased – even slightly smug – at my technological triumph.  There was then a slight commotion in the background and I struggled to hear what Millie, my eight-year old daughter, was saying:

“Just a moment darling…I’m talking to Daddy…No…Ok, Charles? Millie says…that you look very nice in your suit and tie…yes…and the view outside looks incredibly Christmassy…but she wonders…darling? Millie? Speak up!…Oh, yes, Charles, we all wondered actually: who is that cruel looking man at the window?”

Honi soit qui mal y pense

Coffee is most bitter in the evenings. Something to do with the accumulation of taste throughout the day; it has more to surmount. I’d spilled a hefty splosh on the table, covering part of the newspaper that had been left behind by some citizen or other. I allowed myself a glance at the drowned picture beneath. Oh, how he smiles all over all of the the covers. And see how he holds up his benevolent hands in…what? Protest? To show them empty?

As I began to stem the flow of the brown liquid, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, through the partly-steamed glass of the coffee boutique window, a wretched old man hobbling at speed through the snow. He was being hounded by three boys, each of them was, perhaps, seventeen years of age. They threw stones at him and their ferocious jeers were audible even through the thick glass. One of them had a fence post and was swiping at the old man’s limbs.

I winced.

Why, I wondered, was I not compelled to rise? To go to the door of the coffee boutique and shout, until my lungs were raw, for them to stop? Not for the sake of the feckless old devil. But for them. These boys. Their own young skins. Perhaps this, too, would be considered aggressive. Or perhaps I feared their reaction. Either way, I pretended to be oblivious. I did nothing.

I glanced at the wall. The telepanel was illuminated suddenly and there he stood. Our glorious Minister. Those hands. What is it about them? More messages of joy and of hope. More changes ringing out. His speech overflowing with lightness; his unshakable mood babbling pleasantly over the airwaves. More sanctions for wicked acts. Fines for spitting in the street. Floggings for unkind words to siblings. The panel faded to darkness again; it hummed navy blue.

The Charity Roster was released earlier that same evening and people had been avoiding Non-Givers like they were burdened with plague. Like their absence of generosity might leak out them and implicate the philanthropic-of-heart with their selfishness. I was in the Boutique to hide, for the day had burdened me heavily.

I saw them arrive, outside. In their brilliant red uniforms. They approached the boys. The beggar, now lying on the floor, was trampled. And there was still more red. But! “the greater good for the greatest number”. Their weapons were raised and they rained down blow on the youths before dragging them, half-dead, through the snow; leaving a clotting memory behind them.

“This new rule will spell the end of the dreadful cruelties to which we subject our fellow men. It will insist upon decency and good will in all. Enforced kindness; the obligation to love.”

I’d already seen six of my colleagues carted away, shouting the names of their husbands and wives and children.

The telepanel pinged on again and the Minister’s gentle eyes blazed through me. There was a tap on the window. I drained my coffee, stood, left no tip.