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.

Honesty Vault

Siegfried Mason’s wretched skull stares out, still, at all who pass the deserted Honesty Vault. There it sits, in a hollowed-out hole, embedded into the arched entrance; a warning to the cruel and greedy of heart. I pass by now and turn my face to the cobbles. It is shame, not reverence, which moves me.

The Honesty Vault was established by Mayor Thomas Sherwood to share the piteous collected wealth of Oakestone when our humble town was overcoming the terrible famine of 1859. All monies were pooled and stored centrally in the Vault, opposite the great clock in the town square, that a small amount might be taken when needed by any deserving soul. When trade came our way the profits would be submitted to the Vault. When commerce thrived from sales of pigs or of grain or of coal the resultant riches would be added to the collective pile.

The sole rule of the Vault: only ever take what was needed to sustain yourself and your dependents. All other things in the town – food or service – was shared equally. Life, though modest, swelled with comfort and plenty.

The Honesty Vault’s warden elect – an old, deaf verger – sat in a small cabin with a dusty tome; recording withdrawals and deposits after each visit. A regular audit was made and each morning at breakfast the townsfolk would gather to hear Mayor Sherwood read aloud the previous day’s activity (more oft than not a gentle or significant rise is proceeds). There would be food and sharing; music and joy as the town celebrated their togetherness; their resilience in bad times; their strength in altruistic unity.

But after a few years the people of Oakestone grew bitter and savage inside. They saw the growth of wealth and longed for more. But not one spoke word of it; merely festered within.

On a particularly hot summer’s eve, Siegfried Mason (a troubled haberdasher with no wife nor children with a hobbled foot) staggered to the Vault. His head was swimming; hot with the ale he had consumed that evening. Hearsay told that Mason and the landlord of the Black Bull quarrelled viciously about the Haberdasher’s inability to deliver goods on time, not to mention their questionable quality when they were received. That he was a poor and shameful member of the harmonious town. That the idea of community, sharing and equality was lost on him, entirely.

It is said that Mason yelled that he would show the landlord what it truly meant to be a member of this community. Several men swore to the threatening dedication present in his eyes.

The Verger snored from his cabin. Siegfried peered into the dark archway. He shuffled inside.

The morning came. The townsfolk gathered. The entries were read.

*

Mason’s progress, of course, was halted. His trail was traced. He was found in the crypt of the chapel of St Michael. The monies, though, were nowhere to be seen.

Mason was hauled to the town squared and bound to a plank. He was questioned by Mayor Sherwood:

Where are the monies? Where is the wealth which we honestly share?

Mason made no reply whatever. A devilish punishment was devised.

I stood, a mere boy of nineteen years, at the back of the baying crowd. The men and the women gathered around Mason. Each drew a length of leather and dipped it in tar which had been boiled to bubbling point. Each man and each woman then struck him, about the face, for every farthing that had been pilfered. Mason did not cry out.

Eventually came my turn. Though the visage in front of me was no longer the face of a man but a bloodied death’s head aloft a broken, useless body. I made my strikes.

On returning home, my hand as red as an October sunset, a small package awaited me; wrapped in the finest cloth I’d ever seen. I opened it up and found, as every other had that very evening, an equal cut of the town’s accumulated wealth. Less one share.

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 Devil’s Door

When we were small, my brother weaned me on lies and false tales.

He told me, aged six, that my parents were wicked wolves dressed as people; that they were waiting for the perfect moment to gobble us down. I tried for weeks to peel the mask off my mother’s face whenever she bent to kiss me. Once, I caught her with a sharp fingernail and opened a wound on her neck. It scarred her for months and she never bent to kiss me again.

He told me, aged eight, that each time an impure soul sneezes a fallen angel comes to them in their sleep to stuff the noxious air back into their lungs. I paced the floor, sleepless, for a whole month, holding back my coughs and splutters, waking the whole family night after night. From that day onwards, my room was locked from the outside.

But the worse tale was that of the Devil’s Door. I was eleven.

When I was hiding in the cellar one particular day when my brother’s taunts had driven me near mad I noticed a small dark patch on the wall, deep in a damp corner. It was tacky to the touch and smelled like rusted bicycle spokes. I stared at it. It seemed to transfix me. As the weeks went on, I returned to the cellar and the patch grew into an expansive black slick of stuff which rode up the cold wall. I sat, cross-legged, in front of it and lost myself in its strange, ghoulish pattern.

Over my should, on one occasion, I heard my brother’s arrival but did not turn. I hoped – however futile the hope – he would leave me in the gloom.

“Oh. You’ve found it,” he said.
Found?” I replied, not taking my eyes off the wall.
“Yes. The Devil’s Door.” He approached me; whispered deep into my ear. “And you are now his keeper.”

He explained to me that this was the very Devil’s entrance to the world, his doorway for stealing souls and trapping them in Hell; that I had found it and that I was now bound to stop him; that I’d found it just in time for he had already begun stalking out bedrooms as we slept, sizing us up.

My blood froze – I could not catch my breath: “In our bedrooms?” I cried.

“Yes! But you are his keeper! You have to keep us all safe. Hold out your hands.” My brother pushed my palms onto the wall. I felt the black ooze squelch under them. I closed my eyes. There seemed to be a physical shift, too, in the matter itself.  I heard voices cry out and the heat of a hundred eyeballs on my face.

“You have to stay here! Or we’re all damned to Hell where we’ll burn forever. Never ending pain, never ending torment.” He crept away and left me there.

And there I stayed. If anyone came near, I would screech and cry and lash out. I would bite and kick and pierce their eardrums with my din.They sent doctors. They gave up. They sent priests. They could do nothing. I never explained lest the secret roused the Devil’s temper.

My mother brought all my meals; small parcels of food which she would place in my mouth and then leave me where I was to chew them down.  The stain grew and grew. My hands were overcome by it and my eyes dared not leave its surface. I saw faces. The souls I’d failed. Those who the infernal beast had trapped before I noticed the doorway. They spoke to me. They thanked me for sealing up the Devil’s Door and hailed me as his keeper; that I was preventing the terrible fate befalling any others.

I tell you this as a preamble. I do not know – in truth – what happened to my brother. I only heard the screams of the following day. I awoke in the cellar. My arms had slipped from their vital position and I replaced them immediately. Again I heard the sound of crying, broken souls. And something spoken upstairs, through tears, about my brother’s absence; something further about a black stain in the bed where he was last seen.

Something tugged at the torn edges of my soul when I had the news confirmed. Something not entirely unwelcome, I am ashamed to say.

He never returned to us.

It’s been ten years. I am now a man. The lies of my brother ring around my head but I have forgotten his face. I sit here, still, withered but triumphant as the Devil’s keeper. My mother feeds me, as she has for so long, and my father has long since abandoned us. The palms of my hands creak and crack from the adhesive I have used to seal them to the wall. I could not risk another breach. My arms have stiffened and the blackness of the doorway has crept up them, saturating the skin there, coating and embalming the flesh. It’s vileness bulges is my veins and I feel its veil dropping over my weary eyes.

But I can never move.

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.

The other option

They were three.

The heavy door groaned, announcing their unwelcome entrance; as abrasive and bothersome as cloud of cleg flies to the few sorry topers who still occupied the quiet tavern. They approached the bar and each sat, one after another, with portentous choreography. The First, the spokesman apparent, demanded an audience with the proprietor, not caring a moment for the encumbered man’s well-earned slumber.

“Fetch him,” said The First, grinning at the old steward who was tending the bar.

After a time the barkeep arrived from his quarters, squinting through his weariness and wearing sullen protest about his greasy brow. The Third of them produced a skinning knife and began picking and cleaning his rotting teeth with its barbs. The First spoke again.

“Here’s our man! Take a seat, why don’t you?”

“There’s not a man in this village who can tell me my own business in my own tavern,” retorted the barkeep, pulling a bottle and three tumblers from the shelves. “Now, here are three measures of my cheapest liquor. Drink up and get out.”

Again, The First spoke: “We thank you for the liquor, boss. But we have more business here. This inn, here, is now our property. You can either hand over the keys to us or you can take what we’ll call … the other option.”

The Second then man lifted a heavy, oaken box from his lap and rested it on the bar. The Third scraped and tugged at his teeth with his blade.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a betting man,” The barkeep was not for budging and stood comfortable within his own bulk, staring at the three strangers with hot eyes.

The First let out a sharp belt of laughter. He nodded at The Second to open the box. The lid clunked up and backwards, resting against The Second’s chest.

“This some kind of sideshow act?” The barkeep asked with a derisory snicker as he peered over the bar and inside.

“Naw”. The Second spoke this time, staring down into the open, empty box. “This here,” he paused and sniffed.  “This is the head of the last man who told us ‘No'”

The Third stopped picking his teeth.

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.

The Biloquist

‘Oh, Alice.’

The audience’s applause had not long ago faded. Theodor, perched on the travelling trunk in his chilly dressing room, glared down at the dummy. He straightened her little frock and rubbed the grime from her painted face. Though he had gazed upon her strange, vaudevillian beauty so many times before he still wondered at her wooden charm with objective admiration. His eyes were hot with the vision of her. But, it was not enough.

‘If only you were a real woman again…’

He slid off the trunk, opened it up wide and threw Alice inside with a dulled clunk.

‘…then we could at least talk about a divorce.’

He slammed the lid down hard and, with that action, his right hand was delivered a ribbon of splinters. He cursed, in two voices, and wept, in two minds, over a fading memory: the forgotten, blissful sting of intimacy.

The apple of my rotten eye

‘You’ll never understand,’ said the big-voiced woman. ‘Until you’re a mother, the way I am.’

Lajos should not have been eavesdropping but the subject was too compelling and the walls too thin. He sat in his lonesome bunk and listened to the dangling end of the conversation. Its basis was worry and care and dependence and, most importantly, ceaseless love. Its specifics were not what mattered to him. He suddenly became aware of a cumbersome sadness that had been passenger on his shoulders for too long; hitching a ride on his own wretched misery. He wept and the thought ricocheted in his head.

You’ll never understand until you’re a mother, the way I am.

He stiffened suddenly and resigned himself to becoming a parent; the creator of a thing that was interminably his own. He knew, though, that he’d never be able to couple off, for his appearance was enough to turn stomachs strange and milk rancid. He decided to create an infant from his dreams.

Lajos settled down for the night, excited at the prospect of what tomorrow would bring; what the night would give birth to. But earlier that same evening, Lajos had eaten a rotten apple. And as he slept and dreamed it crept up from his belly where it festered. It turned his gestating mind all acrid. The dawn brought a horror too wild and grotesque to record.

Yet, when he awoke, Lajos looked on the terrible thing with beaming pride. He saw it waddle in filth and croak its language. He held it up to the light and sang songs to pacify its vile moods.  He fed it pitch to gobble and stole mercury to calm its unslakable thirst. He watched it grow and taught it, as best he could, the whys of the world. It struggled violently and became itself: autonomous and fearsome.

And whenever, as became frequent, his neighbours came to beat down his door, complaining of the unimaginable death of yet another dog, the blooded absence of one more cat, the poison-poaching of whole farms of fish, Lajos would turn to them, coolly, and deliver his case. And he would spit it like a pedagogue coughing up its wisdom, holding the wizened babe in his weary arms:

‘You’ll never understand,’ he would say. ‘Until you’re a mother, the way I am.’