The Unfathomers (The Unfinished First Novel)

As of the morning of 03-11-2013, I was under the belief that my first attempt at writing a novel had been lost – swept away like so many dead and spent dreams.  That is until I looked upon the contents of an old memory stick.

I include it here, on a page all of its own, untouched, unaltered and very often unreadable…

 

Chapter One

 

I

 

Sherman Nixon felt keenly in a late November afternoon, through soft cushioning along the front of his loafer, a sharp protrusion from the dew-encrusted emerald carpet of the park.  His shabby and age-worn socks, polka-dotted with holes, were sodden through; saturated by the equally threadbare condition of his loafers.

Frosted irritation beat a steady tattoo of migraine as he returned from a somewhat tedious two-mile trek necessary for seeing off his part-time lover at the train station, and this stubborn object had smacked angrily against his big toenail with sufficient violence to send shockwaves of pain throughout Sherman’s ankle and shin.

He adjusted his glasses, feeling at once their icy steel frames against his cheek – myopia had plagued Sherman’s family incessantly throughout their generations, and now into his fourth decade he felt his vision fail him ever more rapidly- and, only after placing his spectacles firmly upon the upper-bridge of his weather-beaten nose, bent down to the ground to inspect the cause of his consternation.

A groove had fashioned itself, by way of an unknown force, into winter-cold soil with unnatural precision; the grass terminated with abrupt tidiness along its abstract perambulations.  The wind whistled through naked trees; leaves felled by September had been mulched by October, and Sherman, feeling much too frost-bitten to investigate any further, made to put it from his mind and return to the synthetic warmth of home.

II

 

Home was, for Sherman, as comfortable as a soul in a permanent state of temporariness could hope for; badly, and irregularly, carpeted with bare wood visible an inch thick from the sloppily-glossed skirting, a sofa of probable third or fourth generation, and the prosaic bric-a-brac of a life not yet decided upon littered the cramped, yet not unbearably so, space.

Sherman had few neighbours, and of these he spoke but infrequently to any.  The chemical predilections and cerebral instability of the co-habitants in the compact block of studio apartments precluded any meaningful discourse, and the only regular interaction between himself and anyone else consisted of the largely-unreciprocated gossip disclosed by a grossly corpulent woman in her mid-thirties who lived immediately below him.

This was an intensely neurotic individual, much given to bizarre and paranoid flights of fancy, and it was to her society that Sherman returned home.  Lisa appeared to have been lingering for some time at Sherman’s front door, and it was to her obvious relief that he had returned.  ‘Have you been up to things you shouldn’t’ve?,’ said she in a manner of greeting.

‘Only in business that I shan’t be sharing with you, Lisa.’

‘Why are you so awful to me, Sherman?’

‘My dear, I treat you in much the same manner as I would treat any irrational being.  In any event, I don’t see why you should feel it necessary to engage me in conversation…what with the limitless supply of voices in your head with which to discuss the inconsequential happenstances of your existence.’

Lisa showed no sign that this had offended her, but persisted ‘I saw the ghost again this morning’.  ‘E walked straight past my window like ‘e didn’t even know ‘e shouldn’t’ve bin there.’

‘Lisa, please…’

‘I keep tellin’ ya, but you won’t have any of it.  The soul of a dead soldier, it is.’

‘Lisa, for the thousandth and, please God, final time, that soul of a dead soldier is nothing more supernatural than you or I.  It is, as I have told you time and again, the sodding postman.’

‘’E don’t look like no postman I ever saw.  ‘E never smiles or nuffin.  Got any beer, Sherman?’

‘No.  You know I don’t drink.’  This was not strictly true, but it was pure folly, in Sherman’s eyes, to allow the merest inch when he knew too well that the mile would cost him dearly.

‘Well, anyway, there was some bloke looking for you earlier.  Looked a friendly sort.’

‘Now, Lisa, was this bloke another piece of your troubled fiction?’  Sherman knew no friendly sorts, and certainly was unaware of any to which he felt cordially disposed.

‘’E was ‘ere, Sherman- plain as day!  Told him I didn’t know where you was, coz you never tell me nuffin’.  You’re a right sod to me, you are.’

‘Never mind that.  Did he say what he wanted?’

‘Nah, just said ‘e’d catch ya later on.  Got any money on ya, Sherman?’

‘Piss off, Lisa.’   And with that, Sherman closed his front door.

 

III

 

He gave the matter of his enigmatic visitor little more than half an hour’s thought – if, indeed, he were genuine and corporeal, and not some delusion of his neighbour’s design – and would have likely forgotten the issue entirely if the next day there were not a gentle knock upon the front door.

Lisa’s chimera had returned, but Sherman was in two minds as to whether to open up.  He could think of nobody who may have business with him, and the prospect of a stranger’s pursuance filled him with an ill-favoured augerance.  He hesitated.  Perhaps his caller would grow impatient and give him up as a bad job.  Sherman silently crept up to the spyglass and, placing his right eye to it with utmost stealth, found nobody there.

Relief soon gave way to curiosity, and curiosity to frustration.  Who could it be that  wanted to see him so badly that they would call upon him two days running?  Maintaining his silence, Sherman gently unbolted his door and peered around in the hope of catching a glimpse of whoever it had been.  Nobody.  There was no sign that anybody had been there.  He closed his front door and resolved, for the time being, to put it from his mind.

Sherman heard his toilet flush.

 

IV

 

‘She’s a big gal, your missus, eh?,’ the diminutive stranger said upon exiting Sherman’s bathroom.  ‘I reckon I’d be out on business more often than not if I ‘ad t’ come ‘ome t’that monster!’  Sherman’s first instinct was to flee, to put as great a distance between himself and his trespasser as was within his power.  But rather than this he remained where he stood, logic failing in the face of instinct’s chiding, as this furtive phantom of five-foot-nothing winked away at him in a repellent attitude of sinister affability.  In situations such as this a body’s programming gets erased in an instant, error messages flash blood-red and everything reverts to atavistic impulse.  Thus Sherman’s australopithecine ancestors were dragged momentarily, as though time were no more than the excess fat from a haunch of prime meat, to the present whereby all their strengths were amalgamated to lift this stranger from the hallway carpet by his throat with one hand while the other yanked the front door wide open, hurling the unresisting and, bizarrely, still-smiling enigma on to the cold concrete outside.

‘That is not my missus!,’ screamed Sherman, and slammed the door.

 

V

 

That evening was the night before the bin men came.  Sherman’s flat was but one of many in a disreputable area, and councils as a rule supplied nothing so chic as a wheeled conveyance to denizens of such districts.  History allied itself with common sense – nobody liked the smell of charred plastic.  Thus, once a week the pavements overpopulated with serried black sacks bulging with the disposable spoils of lives unthinkable.  Foxes rapidly learned by their past mistakes and generally boycotted the area.

Sherman seldom had much in the way of waste, choosing to find alternative careers for the various plastic receptacles in which his commodities were purchased; his toothbrush was kept in a pot which still recalled its days as a vessel for beetroot salad, and his dirty linen lived temporarily inside a wholesale-sized mayonnaise tub.  Sherman could find a use for most things of this sort, and his meagre extraneous refuse he now took outside in its scantily-filled polythene bag.

The evening chill had surrendered to severe precipitation, so that the short dash to the pavement was sufficient to waterlog Sherman’s shoes.  When he got back to his door he found his uninvited menace had returned.

‘These women, eh?  All sincere while they’re lying, but you try turning the tables – just try it – and they’ll charge you double.’

‘What on Earth are you going on about?’  Sherman was tired.  He thought a solid night’s sleep would, if not rid him entirely of this strange and ill-proportioned creature, then perhaps allow his mind to perceive him stripped of all his attendant surrealism.

‘Oh, you know…that woman downstairs.  She’s in love with you, if I’m any judge.  Don’t you ever just want to give in to your basest carnal instincts and ride her like an Indian elephant?’

‘Never.  Who are you, anyway?’

‘Your Uncle Frank.  Well, not your real Uncle, of course.  I sold your old man some mucky books a few times, and if that doesn’t make us family, sod it if I know what does.’

Fatigue.  It pauses all processes of rationality; puts your reasoning on hold.  The mention of Sherman’s Father, combined with his mental exhaustion, caused him to say a very foolish thing.

‘Do you fancy coming in for a drink?’

 

 

 

VI

 

  ‘Do you know, I can’t think of many things more cretinous than personalized license plates?’

Sherman could not formulate any response suitable to this statement, but “Uncle” Frank continued unabashed, ‘saw one just down the road.  A thoroughgoing jalopy, it was, but the plates said “DJ WEZ 1.”  Disgusting.

Grabbing from the topmost shelf of an overhead cupboard a dust-coated and unopened bottle of whiskey for which he had yet to experience the occasion, Sherman poked his head around the kitchen wall, partitioned as it was by a sliding door of flimsy plywood.  ‘Do you want this neat or with something in it?’

‘Just throw it at me raw, son.  Pure and undiluted, just like yer Uncle Frank.’  Sherman’s guest had lost all of his previous latent fulmination, a laughable gnome now endeavoured to make itself at home.  It’s pathetic stature was topped by such a comical head that Sherman felt a fool at his previous reaction; a weedy, thin moustache streaked half an inch below an ugly little pug nose, looking not incongruous on Frank’s squat, brachycephalic face.

‘So, how exactly did you know my father?’  Sherman handed a generous tumbler of Scotch to Frank, who had prostrated himself snugly on the battered and threadbare sofa.

‘Like I said, I used to flog him grotty mags.  In those days I used to dabble in one or two enterprises which some might’ve thought questionable.  But I never saw the harm in it myself.’  It was only now that Sherman realised how high-pitched his father’s old friend’s voice was.  Only an octave or two above normal, but enough to grate against Sherman’s sensibilities.  ‘A right bogger for glossies, was your dad.’

‘He had a weakness for most things that got him into trouble.  I’ve often thought his motivation for doing anything at all was the idea that he shouldn’t do it in the first place.’

‘Aye, that’s him all over.  How’s he keeping these days, anyhow?’

“He’s not.  He’s dead.”

‘’E never is?  Well bogger me!  When were this?’

‘Over ten years ago now.  Massive heart attack.’  Sherman still harboured a portion of regret.  He had not been on good terms with his father when he died; true, they suffered both from a considerable generational culture-clash, but Sherman had ever since berated himself for not maximizing his efforts to bridge their social distance.  The man had been a scoundrel, but the ghost had improved with age.

‘Well, I’ll go to our ‘ouse.’  Frank lifted his glass aloft in mock reverence.  ‘’Ere’s to ya, Roy.’

At this Sherman, without ceremony, took the tumbler from Frank’s hand, picked him off of the sofa by his lapels and propelled him once more towards the front door.

‘You little gobshite!’ roared Sherman, whose father’s name had been Gilbert.

 

VII

 

The rain had eased off to an uncommitted trickle; irregular vacillations of dirty droplets squeezed from the ether and the dense fog had returned, turning everything outside of an eight-foot radius to total mystery.  Sherman was annoyed with himself at having been taken in so easily by the man who had called himself Frank (for he felt reasonably sure that that was not his genuine nomenclature), and yet was frustrated that he was no nearer towards a comprehension of what it could be that the shyster wanted from him.  The plain truth of it all was that he simply was not accustomed to falling for chicanery of any sort – he thought himself above that, but now his curiosity had been piqued, and it was an itch which his brain was struggling desperately to scratch.

Sherman had come to the park, the gates of which were frequently left open, even at such a late hour as this.  He found his environment there calming, and more often than not wonderfully conducive to settling any trivial conundra which on occasion blighted his daily existence, and to which Sherman was also in the habit of attaching rather more significance than their unprepossessing propensities warranted.

Although the park was pleasant to him during the day, it was in the evening, when deserted of people and returned to the government of those winged and stepping creatures whose genius loci was the darkness itself, that Sherman felt truly at peace.  Aesthetically the park at this time was redolent of gothic hues and classical connotations, and the winter fog brought with it an implicit mystique to which Sherman held a tender affinity.

Without a conscious awareness he had gravitated towards the spot where, only a couple of days previously, he had found the strange grooves in the dirt.  Sherman felt them again now under his toes, apparently undisturbed by the myriad human traffic using the grounds as a convenient thoroughfare rather than any natural appreciation, and he could now distinctly discern a circular pattern, as though a dog had rooted through the soil with a considered deliberation and afterwards had bevelled its edges with a trowel.

It was most definitely a zero, Sherman decided after following it along its protracted course, approximately twelve feet in diameter, and carved with precision beyond the means of any wildlife.  It was at this very moment when Sherman, for the first time in his life, began to question the hierarchy of the universe, his place within it, and his mental suitability for a continuance in the sorrowful position he had become accustomed to.

 

VIII

 

Through viscid grey fog the image of the moon was filtered and its blurred circumference lent it an air of gelatinous opacity.  There was a faded and used aspect to it, tired and past its vintage.

Winter had transformed the world completely, having required a mere four months to take the vibrant blossoms of a Monet tree and replace them with the skeletal dead wood of Salvator Rosa.  Humanity mirrored this in a concurrent state of symbiosis, Sherman reflected: a neighbour’s radiant cordiality in June had frosted over by November.  But Sherman’s neighbours were, of course, cut from a wholly more surreal cloth, and seemed to maintain a steady lunacy throughout the calendar; he smiled now as he thought of Lisa, whose randomised madness he now clung to perversely as a familiar island of sanity amidst an ocean of inverted question marks.

A week hence, the only mystery in Sherman’s life was Lisa’s continuing evasion of commitment, but now he was struggling to grasp certainties.  When would “Frank” return?  In all likelihood, he would be waiting for Sherman at home, and with what lies could he expect to be assailed with next?  Why was there an enormous zero embedded  in the ground in the park?  He pushed his spectacles up diagonally to his forehead and massaged the lids of his eyes with thumb and forefinger of his right hand.  Flares lingered from the amber street lights and Sherman saw them on the reverse of his eyelids as dirty greens and ugly turquoises, dulled dayglo galaxies in the star-pricked universe of his optical emulation.  Why couldn’t he just sleep?

 

IX

 

Upon returning home, Sherman tried to telephone his part-time lover.  The hour was late so he felt it reasonable to assume that she would be free to talk.  Her given name was Elizabeth, although for some reason known only to herself (and even then probably dimly half-remembered through the distant fog of her feeble memory), almost exclusively went by the name ‘Perky.’  Perky hid her association with Sherman from her friends and family, although she had yet to give him a plausible reason for this.  Sherman supposed that she must feel ashamed of him, but felt no bitterness about this; in fact, he felt very little, if any, particular emotion when it came to Perky.  She represented, for want of a more flattering term, a hobby, and it was uncharacteristic of Sherman to call her on a whim – the sexual act was, to all intents and purposes, the beginning and the end of their communication, possibly two or three nights a week, always at his flat and never when there was a possibility of this clashing with any separate association of hers.

She did not answer.  Sherman reasoned that she had a friend around, or that she was spending the night at her parents’ house, where she was in the habit of living for at least eighty percent of the week, for she had a pathological terror of being alone.  This was but one of a many social eccentricities which Sherman regarded as being part and parcel of a profound lack of identity; she would attempt to mould her daily existence symmetrically to her closest friends’, and sank into a deep depression when an aspect of their lives eluded hers.

Sherman could not fathom that she was tolerated by her friends, much less accepted and liked.  Perhaps they felt a flattery that they should represent an ideal to somebody else, and that a fragment of their identity might be some vicarious totem of recherché to her appealed to their vanity: we all of us have the tendency to begrudge our friends’ successes, and also to revel in their failings.  But to Sherman this was all by the by.  He had no interest in Perky or her friends – they may as well both of them have been amateur prostitutes for all the regard they had for one another.

 

X

 

‘It’s a bleedin’ disgrace!’

‘What do you want now?’  Lisa was yet again in a fit of pique, and Sherman felt even less inclined than usual to indulge her fevered inanities.

‘Eight ninety-nine a tin, this soddin’ paint!  And nowhere on it does it say it’s haunted!’  She had the unnerving stare of the clinically unhinged, a regular look when something had offended her delicate temperament.  A chronic kleptomaniac, Lisa had been shoplifting for so long that, if pressed, she would require several guesses before correctly landing on the contemporary national currency.

‘Do you fancy taking that one for a walk by me again?  Did you just say “haunted“?

‘Get that friggin’ wax out yer ears, Sherman!  Oh, this is just perfect, this is.  They infest the paint with dead souls, then that way they can haunt hundreds of living rooms at once.  And then they get the likes of you to turn a blind eye to it all, and it just gets forgotten.’

Sherman could not help but collapse into a helpless paroxysm of hysterical laughter.  This was Lisa par excellence, and had he not known better would have said that she had been learning well from Vonnegut and Burroughs.  But she needed no help in her fantasies, and this pathetic fact added extra piquancy to the inherent humour.

‘Laugh all you want, Sherman…how much are they paying you to keep quiet about this?  Your hands are stained, boy!  That was out of the last tenner I had, too.’

‘That’s the grandest of shames, Lisa.  Thanks, though, you crazy old bitch.’

‘Have you got any of that money you owe me, by the way?’  Sherman had at no point in all the time he had known her borrowed money from Lisa.  It ran entirely contrary to his scant principles to ask for help from somebody for whom he had such antipathy.

‘I don’t owe you one magic bean, you daft cow!’

‘Don’t even go there, Sherman!  If you can be good enough to take money, you can be good enough to give it back.’

Sherman opened his front door and, still chuckling to himself, closed it upon Lisa’s indignation.

‘You want to be ashamed of yourself!,’ she screamed through the letterbox as he made for the bathroom and to empty his aching bladder.  He could still not control his mirth.

Haunted paint, indeed!

 

Chapter Two

 

I

 

Drunken dreams stung the most; after the drink came the guilt.  Unwrapping the unctuous, incomplete foetus, that Christmas had been an inebriated holocaust.  Noodles at five pence a pack, nowhere to cook.  Long sleeves, that was the trick.  Nothing too large, mind, keep it small and light.  Chocolates and biscuits, that kind of thing: energy needed for everything, even sleep.  Supermarkets could afford a bit of charity, but that dead baby…one afternoon he had stolen an advent calendar and- who knew why?- he had laughed whilst tearing at the packaging and wrenching the doors open.  Breaking and entering.  He chuckled as his hunger devoured the cheap, malty chocolate three, four, five days of Christmas at a time.  No twenty-fifth.  Christmas day he found the boy.  Drunk in the park, wine-sweeping at the German market.  Three pound deposit on a glass, of course they won’t leave it behind.  While they’re not looking, quick, take it down.  Then get the deposit on the glass.  Jesus, it’s cold.  Jesus, that’s what he thought of when he opened his only present that year.

 

II

 

The train progressed in fits and starts, thundering along before settling to a halt with its engines thrumming impatiently at service stops outside one town or another.  The carriage had been all but empty when Sherman boarded; only a middle-aged couple who appeared indifferent to one another’s society sat a few seats down the row opposite, facing the way in which they had come.

Steadily, the carriage began to fill with commuters and day-trippers, the occasional brace of Oriental travellers and once, to Sherman’s mild surprise, a Jewish party either fresh from, or on their way to, a Bar Mitzvah.

Sherman had taken what money he had and booked a week away by the coast.  The time of year afforded him rich pickings of the guest houses, and the harsh November climate promised him practical solitude in an environment which would otherwise have been swarming with children and the annoying levity of holiday-makers.  He looked forward with relish to the saline air of the sea front, and its near-magical influence on his hitherto anarchic sleeping habits.

He felt that he had enormous, almost insurmountable, arrears of sleep to catch up on; genuine, unbroken sleep in which the mind is freed from any and all mental perambulations.  Thus with each mile placed between Sherman and home a little more anxiety was forcefully discarded from his consciousness: Perky’s indifferent affections, Lisa’s absurd conspiracies, “Frank” and his unknowable campaign of persecution, the unfathomable zero in the park…he watched them slip from the window of the train, fluttering helplessly in their inexorable return journey to the town from which Sherman could not allow them to escape.

At a non-descript station of banal advertisements and disinterested faces a gentleman in tweeds boarded with no more luggage than an orange and black chequered holdall, from which he produced a faded broadsheet newspaper at the instant the doors were closed.  This gentleman sat opposite Sherman and offered him a cursory nod as though a gratuity, settled his septuagenarian frame next to the window and unfolded his greying daily.  Sherman could not discern the title of the newspaper, but caught occasional headlines, the relevance of which were lost to him; “The Unctuous, Eerie Dollar”; “Classical Nasties, Bound in Fog”; “Threepence Revisited.”  The man in tweed caught Sherman scanning these headlines and quickly refolded the paper, putting it back in his holdall.  He looked as though he had committed an intolerable faux pas and began staring out of the window, apparently anxious that he should not catch Sherman’s eye.

He had the agreeable complexion of faded pink suede, cheeks gentle rubies of mild and frequent intoxication which now flushed a further sanguinity of embarrassment.  Sherman at first felt ashamed that he had been caught out, that it was he who should be reddened with contrition, but on reasoning wondered why the gentleman had taken out the paper at all if it were a source of chagrin to him.  And those headlines: he could make no sense of them whatever, nor the aged aspect to he paper itself.  Surely that could never have been printed that morning?  It appeared to be thirty years old, at the least.

They sat in uneasy silence for a while until, from an inside coat pocket the old man took a silver hip flask from which he availed himself of a healthy draught, eyed Sherman with the look of a naughty child and handed the flask over the flimsy table between them.  ‘Go on,’ he said encouragingly, ‘it’s nothing that’ll hurt ya, and it’ll tek the frost off yer belly.’  The stranger held the container in front of Sherman in such a peremptory manner, with an unmoving hand and a look which would brook no refusal, that Sherman felt a pang of obligation.  The morning’s haste had afforded him no breakfast, which on any other day would consist of three mugs of strong coffee and the same amount of cigarettes; he seldom thought of food until late afternoon, and even then as an irksome necessity, a petulant gastric demand silenced only after he had satiated himself with sufficient quantities of whatever was in his cupboard and had yet to grow a hirsute jacket of green putrescence.  The furnishing of a refrigerator was not mentioned in the contract of his tenancy, and he had yet to feel the inclination to spend good money on what he thought of as a luxury.

The harsh liquor was like a firebrand down his throat, the epiglottis pullulating with embers and his alimentary canal a sticky, napalm-like conflagration spasmodic with convulsion until, after what seemed like an interminable journey, it settled in his stomach which irradiated instantly, as though an oven on full-gas.  Scotch and schnapps, Pernod in there somewhere.  The old man watched Sherman’s expression with the air of a veteran, his smirk confessing that this was the effect he was expecting.  Sherman returned the flask across the table with forced machismo: he had no idea what the deadly liquid consisted of that he had so freely poured down his throat.  ‘Thank you,’ he gasped, ‘certainly warms you.’

‘Aye.  Me own little concoction, that.  Not a bad drop, even if it does pain me to break with modesty.’

‘Go on then, what’s in it?’

The gentleman tapped his nose conspiratorially.  Sherman despised the way people were wont to make this particular gesture, as if they tried to give added weight to their self-esteemed sagacity.  However he found it far easier to forgive specious gestures and distasteful habits in the elderly than in those of his own generation: he retained a great respect for his elders, by and large, and they were one of the few factions of society whom he found tolerable.  Their more intimate acquaintance with history was not only charming, but fantastical to he who cherished that vicarious halcyon glow of the past, with the events of fifty-or-more years before his birth being more lucid and palpable than any foggy memory of his own childhood which in Sherman’s conceptualisation stretched far back into the uncivilised darkness of the dawn of time, dreamlike and inarticulate as a child’s retelling of a half-forgotten fable.

His own lifetime he perceived as nothing more than an inconsequential adjunct to the august and dramatic vicissitudes from history, his generation mindless also-rans incapable of having any real effect on world events or bringing about a revolution born from any ideology not already tried and spent many times before with more panache and greater articulation than any of his contemporaries could ever muster: the dialect of the modern age was to Sherman a pointless noise.

This was evidenced even now by a trio of students in the seats behind them, yapping away about nothing, bridging every sentence with countless unnecessary conjunctions and verbalising simple matters of fact as if they were questions.  These Sherman could hardly consider real people, but childish replicas of more laudable folk from a time of austere consequence and thoughtful verbosity.

My generation, thought Sherman: this awful impatience of the young.  Over time attention spans have grown shorter, novelties become yesterday’s thing faster.  Now it was all so split-second that confusion was everywhere, and he shuddered to think that text-speak was taking over: they’d be teaching it in schools before the decade was over.  That a person wanted to save time on text messages, that much he could understand, if not agree with, but today’s speech was unnecessarily protracted with “like,” “get me?” and “innit?”  Disgusted, Sherman had no truck with it.

He was now being offered the flask again, and it occurred to Sherman that he had been waiting for it.  The first draught had been severe at first but after it had gone down and settled he had found it pleasant.  He belonged to the age of the hip flask, his memories were generations old.

The carriage had begun to fill up, its population increasing with Sherman’s inebriation.  A child had been crying for a good while before his companion called out ‘Plug it up, there’s a love,’ and was rewarded by a collective hushed atmosphere of disgust whilst Sherman chuckled silently to himself.  He had no choice but to admire the man.

 

III

 

The youth was so drunk it was terrifyingly easy.  Huddled under a winter coat, out of sight, watching the inebriate shuffle so erratically that he seemed to be taking all points of the compass at once, his navigator as blind as the captain himself.

Probably been causing trouble all night, anyway, throwing sinister spins to everyone’s fun.  Just watch him.  Wait until he gets to that fourth tree where no one can see from the pub car park, those Olympic spotlights mistaking Fiat for Benz, and follow silently…just past the first tree.  Think.

How angry was he when he had found out she had been lying?  Feel it all flood back, fill the body with spite, its rabid snarl pre-emptive, hateful, atavistic.  Nearly at the third tree.  The twat’s just stood there with his arms out like Christ.  Yeah, mate, once you get to that tree now you’ll know crucifixion good and proper.  You’ll take all that’s coming to that bitch for its betrayal.  Catch up, but don’t let him cotton on, as if he could in that state.  He’ll have plenty left from his night on the ale.  Looks like a wrong ‘un anyway.

Before he has time to turn round: perfect.  Head slammed against bark, one hit, one love.  He’s out.  Serve the prick right anyway.  Wallet’s big and fat, flush bastard…yeah you’re a scummy smack rat you are.  Fuck you, my need’s greater.  Three hundred and fifty quid, give or take a bob or two.  Just take the notes and leave the change.  No, fuck it, there’re pounds in there too.  Take it all, and get something to eat.  You’re the one who’s dying, after all that.

 

IV

Emerging from the fuzzy somnolent abyss to a species of warm docility, a whining and disinterested monotone apologised the train’s arrival at Hull station.  ‘You started to float off ‘round about Goole way,’ it took several moments to discern the faraway Midlands twang of the old man with whom he had been drinking, ‘my name’s Harold, by the by,’ and, as his body stretched and shook itself into activity, Sherman surrendered his name automatically whilst reaching for his makeshift luggage overhead.  Harold was waiting for him on the platform.  ‘Always travel light, me.  You connecting on, then?’

‘Aye.  Up to Whitby.’

‘Funny that, me too.  Come on and I’ll tek ya fer a pint.’

‘That’s awful good of you, but you don’t have to.’

‘Well, I’m boggered if I’m goin’ all the way up Whitby wi’ out a few ales in me.  I know a place just near.  If it’s still there, like.’

The Lord Nelson was indeed still there, although Harold’s visible horror declared it not as it was, nor did this meet with his approval.  However, this did not prevent him from standing Sherman three rounds before their departure towards a more salubrious public house.  Having failed in this, the pair settled for having a drink each in every pub and bar they came upon, and it was no great time before they were both thoroughly in their cups.  Sherman repeatedly called the elder ‘Uncle Harold’, splitting his sides each time as if it were the first; Harold, for his part, was whimsical.  ‘I had nephews once.  And siblings t’boot, until one day I said enough was enough and took my leave of the whole shower of ‘em.  Family’s for morons, mark my words.’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ his gaze unsteady, Sherman undertook ostentatious effort to look his eyes upon the drained glass in front of him.  ‘Never had one to speak of.’

‘Best way, lad.  Best way.’

The hour grew late, and so Harold and Sherman took a hotel for the night, one room with two single beds, as Sherman persisted in telling the receptionist ‘this is my uncle.  Nothing funny, right?’  The room they shared was small, but by no means uncomfortable, cheaply furnished throughout with the bare minimum amenities.  Sherman doubted that the kettle worked, and were this not the case had reservations about using it.  Plain, light blue curtains were drawn to conceal a view of who knew what, hidden in a darkness tempered not at all by the slightest illumination.

Harold produced his flask, which had been re-filled by his signature cocktail at some point or other in the evening.  ‘Hold on, there, Harry.  If you’ve topped that thing up, that must mean you have all the bottles hidden somewhere.  How’ve you been lugging those buggers ‘round all night?’

‘Must you be privy to every detail in order to enjoy the result?’  replied the old man, pouring significant measures into plastic cups supplied by the hotel, and before long the pair were talking of their respective histories, like old friends catching up after a lengthy time apart.  Harold’s sentimental whimsicality again presented itself in his autobiographical narration: born during the second war to a woman to whom he clearly still perceived a strong emotional attachment, and who that war had created a widow a mere handful of weeks before his birth, Harold had been brought up in respectable poverty.  His mother threw herself into the unhappy vocation of charwoman to the burgeoning middle classes, receiving social excoriation from her employers along with her pitifully meagre wages.  Her son thus was obliged to abandon schooling at an early age for employment at the huge factories in Nottingham, and there remained until well into his twenties, living at home and combining his income with his mother’s until she at last was again married to a man of modest, though not uncomfortable, means.

‘He was a right swine, to be honest.  Not violent, of course- it was just that he never did anything that wasn’t to his benefit.  Wouldn’t lift a finger to help you out just for helping you out, if you follow.  Hated me from the word go.  Too much a reminder of me owd man, and too much in the way when it came to me mam.  I soon got out of there when I were wed.’

They had met, he and his wife, in The Bell.  Friday nights were always good in there, Harold said, in the early sixties, and never a weekend went by that he wasn’t to be found therein.  ‘There was always a jazz band on, or some rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever.  She was the girl of some singer who wanted to be in the Beatles, poor sod.’

‘Anyway, it wont long afore I ‘ad ‘er off ‘im, the gret feckless mop’ead. Got ‘is bandmates to gi’ me a good seeing to, though.  Don’t believe what you’ve heard about the sixties, Sher,’ Harold was growing accustomed to addressing Sherman with this contraction, and Sherman in turn found this rather endearing, ‘you were as likely to get a kicking then as you are now.  Likelier, if owt.’  A harsh crackle of rain began to attack the windowpane, all but drowning Harold’s monologue.  They both turned their gaze in that direction, glad of their good fortune to have found room in the hotel.  ‘But I should’ve known all along- and I suppose I did, in a way- that if I could tek her from someone so easily, there were nowt stopping some other bugger from tekking ‘her off me.  So after a while I began looking for signs that this were gonna ‘appen, and when yer that convinced that a thing’s on the cards, you find ways of mekking it ‘appen, looking for things that aren’t allus there, so it becomes manifest destiny if yer don’t stop yersen in time.  As it goes, I never ‘ad enough chance to muck it up properly, not in that way at any event.  We were wed within six month, and within the year she were dead.’

They sat and listened as the rain beat its free-form tattoo upon the glass, and the vicious North-Easterly winds screamed along the street outside.  Harold topped them both up from his flask.  Their silence was reverent, pregnant with nothing save a mutual acknowledgement of mortality, and life’s clumsy juggling thereof.

At length, Sherman punctured their taciturnity by pondering aloud as to whether the hotel bar would still be open.  ‘I could really do with some beer,’ he said.

 

V

 

The bar was open, but only as though from a perfunctory sense of obligation.  Its stock was limited, but Sherman was gratified to find that it had not only draught lager, but a hand-pulled bitter.  Though it had well gone midnight, neither he nor Harold felt the least bit tired and the latter, despite his years, showed unmistakeable signs of having gained his second wind.

‘Bleddy stupid thing, drinking like this at my age.’  The old man had ordered for himself a pint of bitter, which had a beautiful chestnut body and demanded of the greatest appreciation.  After he had swallowed, to his visible joy, his first hearty deglutition, he continued ‘seems like only five minutes ago I could sup twice as much.  Slow down, by Christ, it ain’t as if yer’ve much option when yer past it!’  He caught Sherman’s sidelong glance, but was evidently at a loss to interpret this.  ‘What’s up, yoof?’

‘Nothing.  Just wondering what it is you’re up to.’

‘Come again?’

‘You know, swanning up and down the country and taking strangers out on the razz like this…’

‘I hope you’re not driving at summat fruity, Sherman.’

‘Oh I don’t mean anything like that, just that you seem to be a chap who doesn’t reckon on tomorrow coming.  And you keep paying for everything, and I appreciate it- God knows, I do- but it sort of makes me feel like a sponger, and so far I’ve only ever gone out of my way to do that to the government.’  This last was not strictly true: Sherman had for most of his life worked solidly, from one underpaid stint of drudgery to the next, never truly feeling any penchant for a career or loyalty to any vocation.  His ambitions he chose to pursue independently, free from the restrictive sanctions of bureaucratic business attachments.  Over the past eighteen months, however, he had broken this vicious circle, chiefly by becoming homeless.  It had been a lengthy and crucifying struggle to drag himself from the streets, and the hostel in which he was eventually forced to seek sanctuary was scarcely any cheerier, but the Housing Association had finally re-housed him in an area in a state of smack warfare.  Tribal bellicosity founded on a chemical feudalism kept Sherman indoors most days, dreading the intercourse of the damned, but he found that if he lived within his exiguous means his life was now an even plateau of reformative contemplation, wholly preferable to the despair he had left behind on the streets.  He fully expected now the older man’s excoriation for his dependence upon the nation’s coffers, but instead found a gratifying empathy.

‘Don’t fret yersen about that, lad: I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow before I die, and I’ve no one to leave it to.’

‘You’re not telling me you’re minted, surely?  This is getting a bit too “Great Expectations“.’

‘I’ve a few bob, aye.  What do ya say to ‘elpin’ me spend it, Sher?’

He knew not what to say.  The idea of having capital at his disposal was so alien to Sherman that he would have been better prepared for a proposal of marriage from the old man.  Though not without appeal, the thought discomfited him, in a way that, although at the opposing side of his moral spectrum, was still insinuated with distasteful attributions;  an opprobrious Pharisee chided him, while decency implored that he keep this from his response.  ‘Nah, mate.  Wouldn’t be right.  It’s your dough, and you should be spending it on yourself…’

‘I hope you’re not gonna finish that off with “at your time of life“…’

‘Not at all,’ replied Sherman, who had been on the verge of completing his last sentence with that very phrase, had not the voice of decency put it on halt.  ‘All the same, it’s not right me spending your money, when you only met me a few hours ago.’

Harold licked foam from his upper lip and looked towards the back of the bar, it’s crescent shape affording the mirror behind the optics the perfect scope for observing all within the room.  In his prime this would have been ideal for scanning for potential paramours with which to ply his charms, but his sunken eyelids and the down-turned corners of his mouth marked those years filed away, to be dragged out and enjoyed in a comfortable chair, out of harm’s way.  ‘You told me your mam and dad are both dead.  Who have you got to look after you now’

‘Myself.  Which is the same as you’ve got, to be fair.’

‘Hmm…same as most of us ‘ave got, really.  But let’s say for the time being that I’m an old relative who’s leaving his ackers to a favourite nephew…’

‘I knew it.  Another bloody uncle.’

‘No, no, no…just an honorary one.  Say I left it all to you, which I have every right to do, and nothing could stop me calling my solicitor first thing in the morning and arranging it all fair and square.  So looking at it like that, it would be your money we’d be spending’, ‘cos you’re the soft sod who goes and pisses his inheritance up the wall.’

‘Harry…’

‘Sher, I’m an old man.  I’ve got money to enjoy.  I just want to have some fun before I die, and I want someone to have a laugh with while I’m about it.  Is that too much to want for?’

 

VI

 

They had made a mistake.  Precisely how this mistake had been discovered, the ethereal editors of Sherman’s subconscious had felt it prudent not to reveal, perchance hoping not to spoil the continuity.  A year after his mother had died they had decided that she was not dead.  Thus the exhumation, and the concurrent exultation of her loved ones, not least Sherman himself.  Then she went and died proper, and the body-blow was double.  Of course, the dog chose this particular day to die too. His father chose to spend his solemnity buying antiquarian hardbacks bound in dark green, the authors of which also had died that day, and had all transpired to be of close relation to Sherman.  He went to the cinema and threw sandwiches around in catharsis.  An old friend got back in touch, but admitted shortly thereafter declared why he had never liked Sherman in the first place and disappeared again.  For some reason this upset him most of all.

 

VII

 

Sherman had floated back to consciousness the following day late enough in the morning for it to have been pardonable to mistake it for early afternoon. Of Harold there was no sign.

There had been an envelope awaiting him at reception, and it was this envelope he now re-opened twenty-four hours later whilst sat in the hotel bar.  “Dear Sherman,” it read, “Popped out on a spot of business.  Not sure how long this will take, but be a good chap and wait for me to get back, then we’ll nip up to Whitby together.  I know you’re a bit light at the moment, so I’ve left you a few quid to entertain yourself with.  Harold.”  Enclosed with the note had been two hundred pounds in denominations of twenty.

The city throbbed with commerce, Hull being relatively small was overwhelmed by a volume of shoppers which, had it been transposed to Nottingham or Leicester, would have seemed a scant trade.

At great leisure, Sherman had drifted through the bookshops, of which this city offered little, and purchased the odd paperback, careful not to cut too deeply into the old man’s generosity.  He intended to hand back a large amount of it in change, as a way of showing his gratitude, but also to display his pride.

The whet winter sun stabbed his vision, obscured his immediate surroundings in a bright blindness, recovery alternating as he passed between buildings large enough to shade him from both the direct sunlight and the violent golden refraction from the quay.  Streets spirit-level flat one moment had Sherman casting his eyes for shops of interest, the next had him on the defensive, his arm shielding his face from this fierce solar onslaught.

I wonder what that daft old sod’s up to,  he thought to himself as he waited for a woman with a pushchair to finishing coming out from the entrance to Waterstones.  He liked old Harry, of that he was certain- could not help but like him- but there was something else to his new friend that he despaired to encapsulate, a meaning to his manner which after a few hours of knowing him Sherman felt inextricably attached to, as if two separate yet parallel roads had had a connecting street blocked off for so long, and its reopening had caused more chaos than if it had been closed permanently.

The old man’s profligacy also troubled him, made him feel the worse for not believing himself worthy of such generosity, rather than through the guilt of accepting charity, although what he had said to Harold the night before last was true: the cash he was giving Sherman like old food coupons really should be better spent on providing himself with a degree of comfort to curl up in.  Harold’s image jumped to his mind, snug in his drawing room, accepting another draught from the decanter which was poured by an expressionless and utterly overspent retainer in a severe penguin.

He should have a pipe, Sherman smiled.  A pipe and a hundred tales of life in the forces, all ready to be related at length to visitors who would absorb every syllable as though it were a leather-bound volume taken from the shelf.

 

VIII

 

Nor did Harold himself have any clearer notion of where the time had gone on that day; venturing out at just after dawn, he had taken care to ensure that Sherman would profit from his absence.  It should have been the simple matter of a phone call, but his solicitor had wanted him to return to Nottingham to “go over it all” with him first.  Try to talk him out of it, more like, he had thought, as he told him unconditionally that he would do no such thing.  How was it, he wondered, that the more someone had, the less they were trusted to use it?

All had eventually been sorted to Harold’s satisfaction, but now in the one purest moment of freedom since his wife’s death, after all those years of juggling blames and guilts so heavy that every part of him ached, now that he was truly liberated from all his demons, he found himself, unhappily, dissatisfied with the lot he had been given.  What was worse, was that his lot had been considerably worsened by his own conscience; if he could have just learned to let go, to give himself the absolution he had never truly believed in, or even to have merely repressed his self-loathing beneath a laconic layer of debauchery and indulgence, maybe this day would have provided him with happier reflections than those which glared at him sadly from the murky waters surrounding Prince’s Quays.

As he cast his glance distractedly over the small stretch of water Harold spotted a small bubble as it appeared on the surface of the quay close to the bank.  Such a tiny, lambent thing; how a tender fragility such as that could ever be described as anything other than benign left the old man bewildered, and yet that verisimilitude buried deep within his cerebral cortex, tucked safely away where no surgeon’s blade could ever pose a threat, had appeared with a suddenness which again reflected the disturbance on the water.  He had read somewhere of the threat of Guinea Worm in the depths of Africa; the nasty parasite entered the body through infected water, and could only be removed by an incision in the vein and gently, meticulously dragged out from the victim’s leg.  Horrific as this had seemed to him at the time, now he would gladly go through the procedure tenfold for another day to spend at his own decided leisure.

There were, of course, myriad different angles for Harold to view his situation from, and not all of them (he had found to his not unhappy surprise) as bleak as they could be.  Seven months ago he chuckled incredulously at such a feeble diagnosis as epilepsy: the very word to him in his decidedly unscientific mind represented nothing more dramatic than an aversion to strobe lighting.  No great loss for a man who had never once seen the inside of a nightclub, indeed from a generational standpoint had entirely missed that particular aspect of life.

But then the consultant- for there was never such a straight-forward occupation as “doctor” in the modern world, at least not in the medical profession; one had more chance of finding a doctor in an art gallery than in a hospital these days- had taken his levity away by informing him, in a way that implied that everyone was privy to this knowledge, that epilepsy was never as simple a condition as to expect the odd seizure.  Words such as “tumour” and “embolism” ricocheted off of his shell-shocked brain as he stretched all he could of himself in an attempt to grasp the one word that would never deflect: “terminal.”

So, that had been that.  No surgery was required, as there was none to offer- with the strongest will in the scientific world, the part of Harold’s brain which was host to this rambunctious gatecrasher was as yet untreatable.  Like it or lump it, his cards had been unmistakeably marked.

Yet, still, Harold could not lose the feeling of invincibility which had, for as long as he could remember, been key to his psychology.  Impossible to explain, but no less real to him for it; an overpowering sense of immortality which protected him from any fear of death.

He caught, from his eye’s corner, an exhalation of breath which was not his own.  A squat, ugly man of roughly twenty years his junior had appeared noiselessly at his right elbow, and was adopting an attitude much similar to his own, as if in mockery.  ‘Cold enough fer ya, then?’ the newcomer enquired by way of a greeting.

‘Oh, it’s not all that bad.  We muggle through, at any rate.’  The exchange being so broad, Harold felt that there would be nothing more to add.  This typical dialogue of strangers might be no more than a muttered ‘excuse me’ from two people stumbling into one another in the high street, but the short man clearly had further conversation on his mind.  ‘I’ve decided that science is all wrong.’ he volunteered.

‘Oh aye?’

‘Yup…they all reckon that time’s going one way, when it’s actually goin’ the other.  Obvious, really, when you think on it.’

‘I’m not altogether sure I’m following where you’re going?’  Indeed, Harold felt safer winding up this exchange and taking his leave of this, decidedly unstable, chap.

‘Well, I don’t know about you, sir, but I don’t feel any older today than I did when I were a nipper.  I’m sure you’re the same, pardon my presumptuousness.’  The high pitch of the man’s voice made little disguise of his wheezing breath, a constant bucolic contradiction to his speech.  ‘So if I don’t feel any older, then I can’t actually be any older, surely?  Cogito Ergo Sum, as it were, sir.  But there has to be temporal shift, in one direction or another, to affect change, and change is something that nobody can argue is happening all the time.’

‘Okay.  Listen, I should really be pushing on.  Things to do, and all that…’

‘So it stands to reason, QED, sir, that time is going backwards because if you and I aren’t getting any older, but our physical appearances are, then the only logical conclusion one can draw, sir, is that the world, nay the universe, is getting younger.’

‘Oh right…right-ho, then!  Take care.’  Harold took his deliberate leave of the little man, careful not to look back and risk encouraging his following him.  This was not a good time to entertain the local nutters, and besides, he genuinely did have things to attend to.  However, he very nearly did turn around, and even return to where the other was still stood quayside when, almost out of earshot, he thought he heard the words ‘I’ll see you around, Harry.’

 

IX

 

Elizabeth cropped the top from a low-resolution image of herself and judged that it was sufficiently hazy to lend her an air of ambiguity; it always paid to let them guess, and by the time they had met her it was too late to cancel.

Three months remained until Valentine’s, and she meant to waste not a day of it in finding the perfect match for her big day.  So many disasters suffered in recent memory could only mean that she was closer now to that impalpable, illusive person on whom all of her novellas, mostly given free with monthly glossies, had bestowed that hallowed nomenclature “Mr. Right,” closer certainly than she had felt during all of her time spent with Sherman.  That boy just didn’t put the effort in; it was all well and good her going to his funny-smelling flat in the roughest part of Loughborough once a week and indulging them both in their respective distracted libidos, but at twenty-five she really felt that it was time to be thinking about “the real thing.”

She sat and waited for her photograph to upload, flicking lazily through the pages of her glossy magazine.  These were real women, she told herself, no trouble for them to get men for Valentine’s (although she half-suspected that most of the women in these publications had new man each week, corresponding flatteringly with their image).  ‘You’ll never be anybody in this world if you don’t find a man you can feel proud to walk down the road with.’  Her mother’s persistent nudging was ever at the forefront of her mind, ready automatically for any occasion which might need a helping hand.

Good old Mum; fancy her ever meeting Sherman!  Elizabeth shivered at the dystopia, dreading the moment when the event might become unavoidable.  As things stood there was no great likelihood of this, although that did not mean that she should let her guard drop for even an instant, and so far she had to congratulate herself on a sterling job: even her closest friends knew him only by a name, dropped without enthusiasm as background scenery of this or that anecdote of her day-to-day life.

A dulcet digital chime announced that her picture had been placed on her profile, and the row of X’s book-ending her sobriquet “Perky” had now a face to its world-wide dragnet.  She noted with great satisfaction the way in which the off-centre image hid any trace of bad skin; her dark hair looked far more elegant in the artificial light, and her half-smile offset the tragedy of her sunken eyes.

A real lover, of a calibre worthy of an afternoon sat flawless under her mother’s strict neo-catholic scrutiny and her father’s dumb ambivalence (for how could a masculine influence ever hope to survive with such feminine assuredness in the air?  Elizabeth herself, once joined with her new beau, would be made of the purest self-confidence), that would be her life once the rites of February the fourteenth had been observed.  And yet, still, she checked herself, there were only three months to spare…

 

X

 

Lisa had never reminded Sherman that she still retained the spare key to his flat; for after all, who could possibly say when it would prove fortuitous to be left in her charge?  Those few months following his arrival in the block, she could think of no instance of seeing him sober and the degrees of drunkenness, well, it had hardly come as a surprise when he had eventually locked himself out of his home.

He had, in the end, kicked the door down, or, more accurately, stumbled the door down, for his feet as she recalled kept either missing the mark (amazingly), or delivered their blows with such exaggerated impotence that watching him was laughable.  One could hardly have called his eventual triumph the result of  shoulder barge, nor was it successful in fully opening the door- that had come after a final running-kick.  It had dislodged from the frame, though the Yale lock still remained firm.

Directly afterwards Sherman had entrusted her with his spare key, making her promise to be careful with it.  She had indeed been careful; in sobriety he believed himself to have lost the key whilst three sheets to the wind, and she was not going to be the one to put him straight.  Since then its value had proven itself to be even far beyond her expectations; on those rare occasions when he ventured out, she had found a Queen’s ransom in memories: photographs, letters, mementoes and all manner of insights into a past which she now felt was hers to share, so intimate had she become with it.

Why he had gone away, or indeed to where, she had no idea, only that he had taken some luggage that indicated a lengthy absence.  She had, of course, asked him as he locked his front door (he supposed, securely), but he had merely told her to mind her own business, although not in so many words.  He hadn’t always been so beastly towards her; at first he had been rather an agreeable, if a tad distant, neighbour.  Lisa supposed that it must have been the settling-in process and she hadn’t had a chance to see the real Sherman, the Sherman who told her she was insane, the one who snubbed her every attempt at close relations.  His flat certainly had the air of someone who never expected visitors, and the only people to have gone in the flat (aside, of course, from herself) with him were that quiet girl who always looked in a hurry to escape without being noticed, and the friendly little man who had charmed her nearly to a swoon.

The flat was identical in its layout to her own, its appearance as she entered always struck her as if an image of her home had been presented to her in negative: the main wall of her living room was hung with a canvas of a zebra with multi-coloured stripes, just the thing to brighten the place, whereas Sherman’s wall was adorned with some ghastly image of a man apparently painted by a mental patient, with the words “The Man Whose Head Expanded” stretched along the bottom.  Books littered the front room, none of which had titles or authors which she recognised, but again their appearance seemed the dark half of the boring books she had been forced to read at school.

On a previous visit in his absence, Lisa had discovered Sherman’s stash of alcohol.  She had felt far too apprehensive of touching it then, but now for some reason found courage to pour herself a glass of warm beer, which could really have benefited from his having a fridge.  Though not the kind of drink she normally took, the novelty of drinking surreptitiously someone else’s booze gave the bitter a rare taste of its own, and she soon found herself opening another bottle, fearing less with each draught Sherman’s untimely return and discovering her in his home.  In that event, Lisa reasoned, she would simply tell him that she still had the spare key and thought she heard somebody call for help from above.  How she would explain herself supping his ale was another matter, but felt sure that she would be able to invent some reason or other should she be pressed.

‘Ooh, I’d quite literally kill for one o’ them, love.’  Lisa thought her heart had stopped, and only after several protracted moments did she find the courage to turn around to the hallway, where stood the charming gentleman from the other day.  ‘If yer’ve got one to spare, like.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

I

 

In the foyer of her spacious yet homely guest house, Mrs. Hargreaves went over again in the large black leather-bound diary her bookings for November, and again found that there was no mistake: underlined in red ink in yesterday’s date were two separate reservations, one for a Mr. Cartwright, and the other in the name of Nixon,  neither one of whom had thus far shown hide nor hair.  Late the previous evening a half-cut voice had telephoned to inform her that two men, apparently a nephew and uncle, would be a day late due to some excuse or another, but as the caller had neglected to identify himself, Mrs. Hargreaves could not prudently credit him with being either of her bookings.  Fortunately this did not put her to any great inconvenience for, what with it being out of season, there were no other guests to juggle and the help, a middle-aged ex-Navy chef who had a fondness for both the bottle and the chambermaid, had been dismissed until the new year brought back their situations.

This being the way of things, year in and out, Mrs. Hargreaves had long since adopted a casual attitude to her guests; some were punctual to the minute, others were less reliable.  Others still turned up as and when they were inclined, thinking that if they arrived during the same week in which they had booked this would be sufficiently conscientious.  Well into her seventieth decade, she took it all very much as it came.

 

II

 

After quitting the hotel bar at lunchtime, Sherman resolved to give Harold the grace of five hours in which to return from whatever business had called him away so early the day before, after which time he would catch the train to Whitby alone.  He felt genuine surprise at the lengths to which this saddened him: the old man had endeared his sincere persona to Sherman.  So much so, in fact, that he took special care when entrusting the receptionist with a letter for him, signed “Your Friend, Sher.”  It had been so long since Sherman had craved company of any kind (his sordid engagements with Elizabeth notwithstanding) that he regarded this feeling much as if it were for the first time.

Even had he not imbibed several malted hairs from an excessively scrofulous dog that day, Sherman’s blood would still have had enough alcohol remaining in it from the previous two days to ensure that his unsteady frame would pinball obliquely along the roads of Kingston as he made his way, no longer caring for propriety or economy (for, after all, the two hundred pounds were a gift), along the watering-holes of this flat, naval city.  Daylight still lingered in the unwashed window frames of a dank drinking-pit the name of which he had failed to notice when Sherman lost his ability to see straight, and in this dreamy miasma he caught the ironic, nightmarish vision of Frank tucked into a beer-stained corner by the pool table.  Straining his eyes to conjure sense from an ornate Guinness clock, he decided that Harold’s time was up: he would go to Whitby alone.

 

 

 

 

 

III

 

Mrs. Hargreaves was treating herself to a modest rum punch when Sherman arrived.  It was not her custom to indulge in drink, for quite aside from anything else there were appearances to think of, even if the house were empty.  But just lately, these “little treats” of hers were becoming more regular, and increasingly furtive.

Whilst Sherman had rather obviously had a drink or two, her own intake dulling with great ease the senses of her small frame, failed to recognise just how far into his cups the young man was.

‘I’m so glad you made it after all, Mr. Cartwright!’  She proclaimed from her hovering stance above the bookings diary.

‘Nixon.  I don’t think Cartwright will be able to come, I’m afraid.  The old git’s gone and left me in a puddle, too, if it’s any consolation.’  Thinking on it for the first time, it was a striking coincidence that both he and Old Harry had just happened to book themselves into the same guest house on the same day, travelled on the same train and finished up knowing one another as though they had been mates at school.  That he had failed to wonder at the singularity of it before now presented yet another surprise to Sherman, who never usually failed to spot such peculiar incidents.

‘Well, that is a shame.  I suppose you will want some supper?  The chef is away at present, I’m afraid, but I could offer you something simple and honest.’

‘I’m really not hungry, but thank you, all the same.’

‘Oh thank goodness.  I’m simply not in the frame this evening, to be quite honest.  Will you join me in a little drink, then?’

‘Now that, I can certainly manage.’

Marvellous!  If you’ll follow me into the bar, Mr. Nixon, I’ll see you right for a splash.  Don’t fear, it won’t show up on the bill.’  Mrs. Hargreaves half-slinked, half-stumbled from behind her counter, a counter which had- perhaps unknowingly to her- acted as a screen for many years against the improper glances of business men who never were inclined to disclose the particulars of their business.

The bar was far more tastefully laid out than any Sherman had seen over the past few days, and infinitely cosier.  Mrs. Hargreaves had great supplies of all manner, taste and hue of alcohol; the impressive array of bottles lined up with military straightness on the back-bar brought to Sherman’s thoughts memories of colour wheels from his art class at school, so formidable a sight that he again wished Harold were here to sample each and every one with him.  The old man would certainly set his hand to the task with alacrity, and would in all probability feel duty-bound to drink him under the table.

‘Name’s Hargreaves, can’t remember if I told you.  You might as well call me Liza, though, seeing as you’re the only one here.’  The acquaintance of another Elizabeth was not lost on Sherman.  ‘What’ll you have, Chicken?’

Faced with so much choice, Sherman fumbled with impotent decisions.  He wanted it all.

 

IV

 

As holiday destinations go, one could do far worse than visiting Whitby in November.  Clichéd gothic connotations notwithstanding, the vision of that crumbling abbey enshrouded in winter mists is something to stir the fantastical whims of any who can bring themselves to triumph over the one-hundred-and-ninety-nine steps leading up to this literary landmark.

After awaking on his first morning in Mrs. Hargreaves’ impressive guest house, the bed linen feeling strangely as fresh and conditioned as it had the night before, Sherman Nixon took to exploring.  His hangover had not been nearly as bad as he should have expected, due no doubt to the quality of his landlady’s cellar.

The gentle stroll downhill towards the bay felt gloriously healthy.  Gulls weatherproofed to the biting wind cawed at him, while the sound of the sea crashing on the rocks beyond provided soothing accompaniment.

 

V

 

Elizabeth could never imagine leaving home completely.  True, she had a flat of her own and immodestly furnished it was, but she never felt fully at home there in those long hours away from the warmth and safety of her parents.  This sentiment, she was sure, was reciprocated: since the death of her brother her mother and fathers’ anxiety for her well-being had grown tenfold.

Her mother had to all appearances found it harder than anyone to acclimatize to Richard’s demise.  For the first six months after his body had been found with a huge hole where his forehead should have been she had left the house once.  This was to attend her only son’s funeral.

She had sat there on the front row in that small chapel with her husband’s arm around her, feeling duty-bound to push out the tears which trickled down her cheeks to leave pale tracks in her cosmetics.  As the tears fell onto her husband’s fingers she knew that inside a dam was swelling under pressure.

Elizabeth herself had handled the situation admirably.  Her crying was done almost inaudibly in the privacy of her bedroom.  She and Richard had quite naturally fought nigh-on consistently since she had come into the world when he was three.  Indeed, the only people whom Richard would ever more happily have started a fight with during his short lifetime were those who posed a greater threat to his sister’s happiness than himself.

Her father, ever the stoic, had never cried in his life.  The death of his son did nothing to change this.  However, in Richard’s absence he had assumed the deceased’s role of protector.  So much so, in fact, that at times Elizabeth found him overbearing.  She recognised her father’s over-compensation for the guilt illogically felt for Richard; but all the same there were times when she was glad to have the barrier between her and Dad’s overzealous guardianship which her own flat provided.

 

VI

 

When Harold Cartwright arrived back at the hotel in Kingston-Upon-Hull he was dismayed to learn that his young friend had checked out.  Although nothing was meant by leaving him the money, other than that it should be enjoyed, he harboured a silent wish that it would entice Sherman to stay and wait for him.

The bar, romanticized in the small hours by fancies of after-hours noir with its mock Art Deco mirrors and fittings, was by day distastefully artificial.  He took a double whiskey and soda and sat down at the bar.  Gone completely was the comfortable confidentiality of the night before last.

At least his business was concluded.  He took sufficient comfort in this to order himself another double, and reflected upon his encounter with the disagreeable little man by the quay.  His over-familiarity unsettled Harold; the mystery of why the stranger knew his name bothered him more so.

Today would not be the day to fathom niggling riddles.  Harold wished only to enjoy the coming days by the coast.  Simple ratiocination told him that Sherman would be in Whitby.  Harold checked himself out of the hotel and followed his friend.

VII

 

Shortly after leaving Sherman’s flat, bruised and bloodied, Frank had made a promise to himself that, the vicious beating he had received from the young man’s neighbour notwithstanding, his business with Sherman Nixon was by no means over.

He had to find a way to get under his skin; if he fathomed nothing more than what it was Sherman feared to lose the most, the game would almost certainly be his.  But when Lisa had turned on him, with a ferocity that he had not expected, even taking into account the woman’s size, it proved to Frank that he was a man long past his prime.  He had weathered badly the bitter-sweet battlefield of his life; overcome obstacles battered and scarred, sliced and punctured by its virtual barbed and razored wire.

At Sunday school, all those years ago, he had heard all about forgiveness.  Had it drummed into him while they sang hymns dedicated to turning the other cheek, loving thy brother and forgiving all trespassers.  Those ministers, clumsy old men to whom the outside world represented nothing more contrary to their doctrines than an extension of a Sunday turn-out, could learn a thing or two from Frank now.  He had seen the sort of trespasses that the real world asked him to forgive, and he doubted whether any of them if taken from the comfort of their Parish would have tackled them in a more Christian way than he.

The unrealistic tenets of a faith proved useless to Frank were one thing, but the species of brutality which festered in his mind and tormented him constantly were quite another matter.

 

VIII

 

Lisa had not let herself into Sherman’s flat since her encounter with the little man who she had hitherto found charming.  She had given him free range of Sherman’s liqueur supply, and taken the top off of at least four bottles of beer for him, but all of her hospitality had met with nothing more than the man’s derision.

Perhaps it would be best in future not to allow others to know that she had figured out the conspiracy of the haunted paint?  Or at the very least cease her surveillance of the phantom soldier who each morning whistled past her window (soldiers were well known for their whistling.  It helped with their morale when they were stuck in the trenches).  Whatever it had been to make him laugh at her, Lisa was duty-bound as a decent citizen to excoriate him with the most extreme prejudice.  Her reputation demanded thus.

As she sat in the familiarity of her upbeat living room, surrounded by trinkets of no practicable service but pretty to look at, she reflected upon the man formally thought of as charming; had Sherman even told her who he was?  What possible connection could there be between him and her neighbour?

 

IX

 

Sherman was crossing the bridge over the bay when he spotted Harold waving at him from the side he was bound for.  The old man had chips.  Quite aside from the pleasure Sherman beheld at discovering relief well up inside of him that Harold was not in any trouble, it was this steaming grease-drenched bounty which quickened his pace.

‘I was beginning to wonder if you would show up at all,’ Sherman muffled through a mouthful of mulched potato.  His trip to the abbey had worked his appetite up to a ravenous level, breakfast as usual having been eschewed: the only negative point to Mrs. Hargreaves’ charming guest house was the legal imperative to smoke outside.

‘Got held up by something or other.  All seen and sorted now though, youth.’

‘Are you still not gonna tell me what it is that’s been so important you had to drop everything?’

‘Probably not, Sher.  No offence, but let an old man have his secrets.’

‘Fair enough.’  They began a leisurely saunter up the hill back towards the hospitality of their landlady: Sherman for one had designs on the contents of her awesome bar.  ‘By the by, you didn’t have to leave me that money, you know.’

‘Oh, just a gesture.  A few quid I had in my pocket.  I hope you had a good time?’

Sherman delved into the recesses of his trouser pockets and pulled out several crumpled notes, which he straightened out as best he could.  These he handed back to Harold. ‘I saved most of it to give you back.’

‘I’m not putting that sorry looking lot in my wallet!  You crumpled it up, you keep it!’

‘Thank you, Harry,’ Sherman smiled with genuine affection for the first time in many years.

 

X

 

The computer screen beamed at Elizabeth, and Elizabeth paid this back tenfold: she had found the perfect man.  “Richard” seemed absolutely ideal for her.  He had his own car, lived on his own and told her how much he looked forward to meeting her on the coming weekend.

She had not thought of Sherman for days, and felt all the better for it.  Not much longer and she would never have to worry about her parents or friends meeting the crotchety, disconnected loner.  Doubtless he would be upset when he learned of her new romance, but that could not be helped.  The time had come to move on to bigger and better things.

Elizabeth was sat in the bedroom kept for her at her parents’ house.  The music playing quietly from the computer prevented her from hearing the footsteps on the staircase, and remained unaware when those footsteps progressed along the landing towards her bedroom door.  The ugly, squat man with brachycephalic features had just returned from Kingston-Upon-Hull, from where he had learned that Sherman had gone on to Whitby.

Frank had returned home briefly to gather a few things before the long drive north.  He tried the handle of the bedroom door, but then checked himself.  Knocked three times and then very gently opened the door so as not to alarm the girl within.

Elizabeth gave a start when she noticed the man stood there, obviously with something on his mind.

‘So sorry, my dear.  I didn’t mean to startle you.’  The pudgy features stretched themselves into a toothy smile.  Elizabeth softened at once.

‘That’s ok.  My mind was miles away.  Don’t tell me: you’re going away again?’

‘Not for long this time, Liz.’

‘Well have fun, whatever it is.  Bring me back something nice, though, Dad.’

Chapter Four

I

It had not taken long for Frank to decide that Sherman was no good for his daughter.  It had taken him even less time to come to the conclusion that he liked Sherman Nixon very, very little.

Elizabeth – his little Perky – was completely unaware that her father had been following her for several weeks on her excursions to the bespectacled young man’s shabby flat.  Had she been aware, she would certainly have felt chagrined, as she had always predicted.

But to Frank the man represented far more than a source of embarrassment: there were other things that Frank knew about Sherman than his seedy affair with his only daughter, things that he had yet to be called to account for.  However, first things first: Frank had to sever Elizabeth’s connection with Sherman before any retribution could be carried out.

II

Elizabeth had to end her relationship with Sherman.  However, her part-time lover had gone missing, and she had never asked him what he actually did when they were not together.  She prided herself on having above-average moral values and, as such, felt it proper to tell Sherman their paltry relationship was at an end before embarking on her new, real, romance.

Richard Number Three, as Elizabeth had nicknamed him (she had considered calling her new love Richard The Third, but she had no frame of reference as to what kind of a person the original Richard The Third was, and besides knew that this particular nomenclature was popular rhyming slang), represented all that her past had taken from her: depth, sweetness, a roller-coaster ride of feral young passion.

Elizabeth logged on to the site on which they met.  They had agreed to go online at precisely the same time every day, at least until Richard felt it the appropriate time to give her his telephone number.

Richard was not there.

 

III

 

‘Of course, I’m not saying to break the poor girl’s heart…’

‘That’s certainly not my intention, Mr…’

They were sat in a secluded corner of a public house, chosen for its anonymity and bustle.  A modernized old bank, the huge unfillable space provided ample nooks for privacy.

‘Just call me Frank.  No, what I want is for you to just keep her happy for a while.  Out of the way, like, while I sort some business out.’

‘I don’t suppose I need to know what this business actually is?’

‘Not really.  In fact, probably best if you leave all of that to me.  Just be the man of her dreams for a while, that’s all I ask.’

An extremely young member of staff shuffled along the tables carrying a large, green plastic crate-type affair.  This he stacked with dirtied glasses so that they reached up to above his forearm.  Frank absent-mindedly guessed at how long it would be before the inevitable happened.  He was close enough in his estimation to allow himself a smug grin when the weight of the basket lilted out of the young man’s control, crashing against one of the huge stone pillars.  Accordingly, tradition being what it is, this was met by several rounds of applause from all corners.

‘If I can be honest with you, Mr…’

‘Frank.  Please.’

‘Frank.  If I can be honest with you, Frank, I already like your daughter very much.  What if she finds out that I’ve been lying to her?’

‘That’s not something you should worry about, son.  Once I’ve done what I’m setting out to do, you’re to get your spotty, brothel-hopping arse straight out of her life.’

 

IV

 

As a chance encounter, Frank could scarcely have hoped for one so fortuitous.  His son had been in the soil for less than an hour.  The stifling atmosphere of Richard’s wake would have seen him passing out, had he not whispered an excuse into his wife’s ear and taken his leave of the solemn proceedings.  He felt as buried under the collective grief of his family as his son literally was under so many shovels full of earth.

Judith understood her husband better than anyone: his need for solitude was his grief.  She nodded understandingly as he whispered his intention to depart, and watched fretfully as he slipped away.  Throughout their lives together Frank had reacted in this way to any and all difficult situations, and in his own time he would return.

Frank himself had had no clearer idea of where he was heading than his wife.  All that he knew for certain was that it was impossible to stay in that house any longer.  Without thinking he paused at the bus-stop.

A gormless looking youth was the only other person waiting for the arrival of the bus.  He seemed absorbed with whatever fatuous thoughts went through the minds of the young, and only properly noticed Frank after the elder had been stood there for a few minutes.  He had lifted his absent, sunken eyes and faced Frank with suspicion.

‘You bin to a funeral, then?’  The lad looked half-dead.  His cadaverous skull skulked underneath a fleece hood, a few wispy blonde straggles of hair peaking through the top.

‘I have, as it goes.’  There was no way that Frank had wished to engage the youngster in conversation.  He looked the sort who spend their days loitering outside shops and harassing the innocent.  Frank had heard all about them, and their staggering lack of morality.

‘Whose?’

‘My son’s, if you really must know.’

‘Shame.  What happened to him?’  This questioning had begun to grate upon the nerves of the bereaved father.  The sooner the bus arrived and they both got on with their lives – separately – the better.

‘Look, I don’t want to talk about it.’

The look of hurt on the face of the young man had put Frank very slightly to shame.

‘He was beaten to death,’ he surrendered.

‘Fookin’ ‘ell.  When was this?’

‘About three weeks ago.  Some bastard slammed his head against something and left him for dead.’

There were calculations happening within that young mind.  Frank could see the lips move.

‘Hang on…three weeks, yeah?  I saw some poor sod get a pasting about three weeks ago.’

‘Where was this?’  Although anxious for this meeting to be at an end, frank could not help but feel his interest pique as the boy said this.

‘On the green, just opposite the Anchor.’

‘You saw that?  What the fuck were you doing there, then?’

‘Coming out of the Anchor, of course.’

‘Wait a sec…if you saw the bloke who did it, do you think you’d recognise him?’

‘Aye, probably.’

‘Right.  You’re coming with me.’

 

V

 

The young man’s name was Alex.  The alias “Richard” was eventually assumed to satisfy Frank’s nebulous plans for retribution, but Alex had wasted no time in pointing out Sherman Nixon.  He was also true to his word: he had indeed seen Sherman at the scene of the real Richard’s violent end, although he had not gone so far as to relate all of the details.  To wit, that he had only spotted Sherman after the doomed youngster had received his fatal beating and, more significantly, was perhaps the only person alive who could without any difficulty acquit Sherman of this crime.

All of this seemed of little consequence to Alex.  As long as he could continue to appease the squat old man he was more or less able to use his situation to his advantage.  The trick was in the truth: so long as Alex never sold Frank a falsehood he was immune to being discovered.  Discovered, that is to say, as the key to his son’s real killer.

 

VI

 

‘Will you just feel that fresh air in yer lungs, young ‘un!  It’s like a lungful of absolution after a lifetime’s sinning!’

They had availed themselves of an afternoon’s refreshment in the Mrs. Hargreaves’ bar.  Harold was as impressed as Sherman by the good lady’s hospitality, and now both were in high spirits.

Sherman paused on the twenty-seventh step to light a cigarette, Harold checking him with a look of disdain.  ‘That’s hardly the attitude, my Dear Sherman.’

‘Sod that.  I’ve been counting.  One hundred and seventy-two steps to go, and if you think I’m tackling that lot without a fag you’re obviously a bit senile.  In which case I wish you all the best and promise to visit.’

‘Now don’t be like that.

‘I have to be.  What is it makes me think you’re trying to polish me off?  You do know, don’t you Harry, that people have been known to die from doing things like this straight after a good session?’

‘That’s swimming, Sherman.  And even I won’t be going in that water at this time of the year.’  Harold indicated the vast expanse of the North Sea and visibly shivered.

‘Yes, well, I’m sure I’ve heard about people having massive heart attacks trying to do daft things like this with a gutful of ale.  My dad died of a heart attack, I’ll have you know.’

‘Sherman Nixon, will you please try not to throw a tantrum?’

Sherman flicked his cigarette onto the grass and grumbled as he caught up to the old man.

 

VII

 

Later, back in the guest-house bar, Sherman felt more relaxed.

‘So what was the reason for dragging me up all of those steps?’

Harold took a sip from his stout – one of the best he had ever tasted, or so he had told Mrs. Hargreaves – and wiped the foam from his upper-lip.  ‘A place as singular as that Abbey perched up there,’ It was a very casual nod, but Sherman somehow knew it would be in the correct direction, ‘is its own reason for making the effort.  My parents used to take me up those steps every Summer when I was a boy, and each time I visit these days I make a point of going up there at least once.’

‘Don’t get me wrong, Harry.  I love the place.  I just thought it might have been a tad more appropriate to go there a little more sober.’

‘And when was the last time you were sober, Sherman?’

Unaccustomed to shock as he was, Sherman nonetheless marvelled to recount that his last sober memory had in fact been on that train on which he had made Harold’s acquaintance.  How many days had that been?  So much seemed to have happened, and yet so little: of the relaxation and equilibrium he had intended there had been very little, though new experiences (of which the travelling mind, as opposed to the holidaying mind esteemed the highest) had presented themselves at each turn.

But it had been a long while since Sherman had spent this amount of time in drink.  That period of his life lay half-forgotten in a fug of self-loathing, that Victorian spectre of malevolence and failure lurking in the shadow of his past.  He had done some things of which he remained utterly ashamed, no matter how many times since he had told himself that these deeds were necessary to his survival.  No person alive can judge the acts of a man clinging to each day just so he can glimpse tomorrow, when every heartbeat is a heartbeat of fear and paranoia.

The alcohol opened the door to these memories; visions of human desperation and misery assaulted him.  Like a celluloid projection Sherman grimaced to see himself discovering the unborn corpse carelessly wrapped in rags, not even properly hidden amongst the winter hedgerow.  What could he have done?  In his intemperance Sherman had imagined reporting his discovery only to be implicated, while his frozen hands were useless to give the child a proper burial.

He remembered how, when after he was safely re-housed in his new flat, bitterness had set in, a seething hatred of the mother who so apparently casually had tossed aside her own child, while he, so removed from the situation and innocent of procreation had assumed all of the guilt.  This anger had not so much subsided as it had been hidden over time by Sherman’s inherent sense of decency.  At least, this was what he told himself – for to remember was to enforce madness.

There was one other violent memory which resisted Sherman’s recollection, one which he glimpsed only momentarily in his waking moments.  When fully conscious he was aware that there was something, and that this something was exceedingly unpleasant and filled Sherman with as much guilt as his discovery of the foetus.  The worst part of this subliminal taunting was by far that Sherman had no idea, whatever this dream consisted of, whether or not this guilt was justified.

 

VIII

 

The phone buzzed three, four and then finally five times before the mouse-like voice at the other end said ‘Yes?’ in a demanding tone which belied the voice’s gentility.

‘Elizabeth, it’s me…’

‘Yes, I know.  In fact, I’m sort of glad you called.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yeah, I need to tell you something.  I’ve met somebody.’

‘Oh,’ Sherman repeated flatly.

‘I don’t think we were ever going anywhere, do you?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

‘You’re not too upset, are you?’  Elizabeth’s vanity demanded that Sherman be heartbroken, but at that precise moment all he could feel was nothing.  No grief, heartache or remorse.  However, what damage could it do to put on a front for the poor girl’s sake?

‘Perky, I don’t…’

‘You’ve never called me “Perky” before, Sherman!’  This was true: the sobriquet was perfectly detestable to him.

‘I know.  Elizabeth, are you sure you’ve thought this through?’

‘Completely.  Please don’t try to change my mind.  I want something different to what we had.  You do understand, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’  Sherman faked a few half-hearted sobs down the phone line.

‘I think you’re a lovely bloke, Sherman…’

‘Oh piss of, Perky!’  Sherman replaced the receiver without anger or self-pity.  He had only called to ask if she would check to see if his flat had not been broken into.

 

IX

 

Frank arrived in Whitby on a late train.  He had had the carriage practically to himself, for which he was thankful as he still had a lot of thinking to do.

He carried with him a hold-all full of essentials: clean clothes, toothbrush, deodorant, twelve metres of strong rope, an eight-and-a-half-inch bowie knife and a balaclava.  Frank had been to Whitby once in his life, and he had hated every second of it.  The place had an air of superiority which had grated on his nerves, and the holiday-makers made him itch with latent violence.

As he left the train station he stopped to take in the scenery.  It had changed very little from his last visit, and he hated it still.  This was not necessarily a bad thing, however, as a bad mood would be all the more conducive to exacting his task.  It would soon be time for Sherman Nixon to answer a few questions.

 

X

 

Sherman bid Harold a good night after they had finished their drinks.  It had not been a bad day, all in all, and he was certainly enjoying himself a lot more now that his friend had returned to his company.  He fancied that Harold was becoming sweet on their landlady, which Sherman found rather charming.

On the whole, Sherman Nixon had not felt this care-free in years.  Whether it was due to the clean sea air, his propinquity to Harold or merely the fact of distance between himself and the drab monotony of home he could not decide, but this was of great insignificance.  For the first time in his memory, things were looking positive.

His room was on the third floor, opposite Harold’s.  The view, though unspectacular, offered a feeling of timelessness: surely the street he was on had not altered much in over a hundred years.  Architecturally, Whitby more than lived up to its gothic reputation and filled the traveller with the same fancies as must have inspired that great Irish Victorian novelist.  Before drawing the curtains for the night, Sherman took a moment to allow his mind the freedom to imagine the dramas unwritten, which the seaside town would be the perfect backdrop for.

Sherman’s bed felt glorious as he slipped into the vast, freshly-laundered luxury.  No, things were not going bad at all.  He took from his bag a paperback edition of Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer and managed nearly three pages before falling into a deep, welcoming sleep.

 

Chapter Five

 

I

 

Alex Pinder had not long celebrated his nineteenth birthday when he was sentenced by three magistrates to serve nine months in prison.  His solicitor had strongly advised him to plead “guilty” from the outset, given that any defence they could offer had nothing but the most anaemic strength.

So “guilty” he had pleaded.  Not unreasonably, either, since there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the charge of Grievous Bodily Harm was perfectly just.  Even Alex himself had accepted his guilt.  But the law is a very lenient supervisor when one is young and without a criminal record: A third of his paltry sentence was accordingly chiselled off due to his early plea, and of what remained Alex was obliged only to serve half.

Things, however, seem far more brutal when one serves one’s first night in imprisonment.  After the initial dehumanizing transportation, cattle-like, from court-house to prison which lasted a gruelling five hours due to prison shortages, Alex had found himself in HMP Cardiff, miles away from anything which could relate to him a sense of home.  This alien enclosure forced him to endure having his clothes stripped and in their stead being attired in ill-fitting mauve rags which itched constantly, regardless of how much soap he applied to his skin.

The initial shock to his system subsided within a few days.  He made himself a calendar, which he had been told would help make the days pass with greater expediency.  They did not.

Alex was rationed to a small packet of tobacco.  He had never smoked roll-ups before, and the mental exertion required to keep the mahogany strands within the thin white paper as he attempted a straight, clean cigarette stressed him even more so after all those hours starved of nicotine.  Eventually he formed what he considered a passable attempt, feeling his muscles loosen as the coarse smoke settled in his lungs.

He would discover, as time went by, that a great many aspects of prison life depended upon tobacco; it was, for lack of anything more substantial, the currency here.  To a lesser degree, coffee was also highly prized, given that this was not included in the daily rationing.  He could not understand this: tea was supplied freely, five, six bags at a time, while coffee remained a commodity kept on the weekly canteen sheet, price held at a premium.

 

II

 

It takes a certain frame of mind to seriously consider an act of murder.  The difference between the contemplation of killing another human and actually putting plans in motion is a galaxy-wide.  Most people – not all – have an innate automatic cut-off point which steps in well before the planning has reached any further than the first stage, but sometimes events conspire to bypass this contingency.  Events such as the execution of Frank’s son.

Frank had lost countless nights’ sleep soul-searching: was he the kind of man who could see these atavistic impulses through to their bloody conclusion?  At first, he seriously doubted that he was.  There was just too much of the family man in him.  The image in the mirror told him daily to give up this fool’s errand until, bitterness threatening to engulf him, it was ultimately usurped by a new face.

With this new, toughened persona came an all-but-impenetrable aura of solitude; Frank began to keep a necessary, albeit regrettable, distance from Judith and his cherished Elizabeth.  He found himself operating, not only outside of the law, but also contrary to his own hitherto high moral code: there was no edict too valuable to be put on the shelf, not if he was to succeed in the charge he had assumed.

 

III

 

Alex had been placed on D-Wing, widely considered throughout the prison to be the place for “delicate” inmates.  His fraternity consisted, by and large, of recidivistic arsonists.  These had been sentenced, as was the duty of the law, to Incarceration for the Protection of the Public, meaning there were a minimum of years which had to be served before they were even considered for parole.  It was common knowledge that a prisoner on IPP was automatically refused parole on his first hearing, which struck the young Alex as unnecessarily cruel: why put a man through the rigmarole of a hearing if it was a foregone conclusion?

He found himself beginning to empathise with even the most hardened subjects, there was no crime for which Alex did not feel the punishment unjustifiable, and this comradely attitude served him well amongst his fellow inmates.

Owing to the nature of the wing, Alex found himself “twoed-up” with a number of transient cell-mates.  His first was a decent enough lad of about his age, given a mere fortnight’s detention for non-payment of fines.  They bonded instantly, given that this was the first experience of prison life for the both of them.  Alex found himself unexpectedly touched with sadness and good wishes when the day came for his friend to leave.

His next cell-mate lasted just one night.  From the outset it was clear that there was something not right about him, from the way he would stand in the corner of their cell and stare at Alex as though in contemplation of his skull.  A young man smart and headstrong is still a young man, thus the unseasoned boy yet residing inside of Alex spent the night without sleep.

 

IV

 

It was raining in Whitby, and Frank was intoxicated.  He had only meant to have a couple of beers, but he had found that the more he drank the more he needed to drink.  As he staggered down this and that quaint old alleyway he realised that he had forgotten the way back to the bed and breakfast he had taken for the night.

In a sheltered shop doorway he stopped to get his bearings.  The cobbled streets glistened with their wet beauty, raindrops reflecting with neon-like effulgence.  He needed a clear head, now and for tomorrow.

Cackling gulls seemed to amusing themselves at his expense, as expert navigators will laugh at a stranded novice.  Frank imagined that the callous birds could see from their advantage a clear and direct route to his bed, but were having all the more fun by keeping this to themselves.

‘Shut up, you gobby bastards!’ the curmudgeonly drunk shouted as he once again took to his heels.

 

V

 

The next day Alex’s cell-mate asked him to look over a letter he said he was composing to his wife, saying that he had difficulties reading and writing.  Though not of any literary mind himself, Alex, for the sake of peace, agreed.

What was written upon the scrap of lined prison-issue paper would remain with him always:

 

Their cumin to get me.  Please send me money from the bank so i cn pay them not to slit me froat in th showers.  I luv you.  The man in the cell wiv me wont stop looking at my nekk.  I know their gunna kil me.  I luv you but i av to do wot e sez.

 

This child-like scrawl appeared to Alex more like the deliberate messiness of a calculating mind; disturbed, yes, but by no means helpless.  He called for a guard on the emergency bell.

When the guard arrived he impatiently demanded what Alex wanted, only bothering to unlock the door after recognising the look of severe agitation upon the young man’s stubble-free face.  As the cell door clanked shut behind them Alex pleaded for them not to return him to the mercy of the lunatic.

By this time the Chief Warden had taken an interest in the happenings, and promptly ushered Alex into his Plexiglas-windowed office.

‘You are aware, aren’t you, that this wing is especially for prisoners who would otherwise struggle on A and B wings?’ his closely-shaven face and pungent aftershave bespoke a man who had chiselled his job down to a fine art, and his air of stretched patience told Alex that this speech was one he had recited often.

‘Nobody told me about that, Boss.  This is just where they put me when I first came in.’

The warden took Alex’s file from a stack upon his neat, polished desk and ran his eyes over the particulars.  ‘Hmmm,’ he said at length.  ‘Looks like you were put here as a last resort.  Says there was nowhere else for you.  Well, this is what I’ll do.  I can move you on to B-Wing, if you like.  You won’t have any special cases up there, but it’s where the hardened long-termers are.  You won’t be given half as much slack as you get down here, mind.’

It was true that the guards on his wing were friendlier and less strict than those Alex had met on admission.  Often he was given a daily newspaper after the guards were finished with it, and the pool table was only cursorily monitored during association.  Alex had no wish to make life in prison any harder for himself.

‘Could I stay down here?  Now that I’m used to it, and all?’

‘Well, the staff down here are trained to look after difficult cases which would not meet with success upstairs,’ the warden motioned towards the ceiling with his chin.  ‘If you do stay down here, there’s no guarantee that it would be permanent.’

‘But what about him?

‘I think you can rough it out for a bit, yes?’

And there things would have been resolved, Alex returning to his cell and an existence of perpetual fear and no sleep, had he not grabbed the note when the guard allowed him outside.  He gave this note now to the warden, proving himself not guilty of the paranoia suspected of him.

‘Oh dear.  Yes, I think we might have to call in somebody from Health Care.’

Health Care was friendly prison terminology for the mental wing, a block separate from the main prison and talked of by the inmates as a Catholic talks of Hades.  Rumours abounded of rubber rooms and the highest degree of negligence.  The block, if these rumours were true, thoroughly deserved that hackneyed phrase, “once you go there, you never return.”

Thus Alex was again alone, awaiting the arrival of his next cell-mate.  As things transpired, he did not have too long a wait.  However, had he known at the time who his next guest would be, he would in all probability have asked the warden to send him upstairs.

 

 

VI

 

The Bed and Breakfast Frank had chosen was at the other end of town from where he knew Sherman and his superannuated friend were lodging.  This was a simple yet dignified and quaint old house, done out in superior mock-Tudor and boasting a roaring log fire, which was daily refuelled from its sizeable outhouse.

The house was kept by an elderly couple, courteously nosey and unnecessarily punctual; breakfast was rarely acknowledged by their guests when it was served at precisely seven-thirty every morning.  Sunday was in fact the only day on which they could confidently count on a full table, because on this day – and on this day only – breakfast was brought forward to nine am.

However, on the whole, Frank could find nothing to criticise.  The lodgings suited his purpose to perfection.  He had unpacked his stark inventory and found a hiding place for those belongings which would need a prompt explanation, should they be discovered.  A chest of drawers, decades old, gave him ample space under its bottom drawer to conceal the knife, rope and balaclava.

For years he had led a comparatively blameless life; done all the things expected of a decent man, such as entering into matrimony, fathering good children and holding down steady jobs.  Never had the issue of religion been required.  Religion, in Frank’s eyes, was for those who needed ongoing assistance to remind them of right and wrong.  It represented a weak admission of human fallibility which ran counter to his own – quite reasonable – beliefs that a man’s journey through life is his own mission of trial and error.  Mistakes were made to be accounted for and corrected.

From the old, panelled white door came the report of a frail human knucklebone.  Frank opened the door instantly, which surprised the pusillanimous lady of the house.  ‘Oh, er, sorry to disturb you, Mr…’

‘Frank.’

‘Mr Frank.  I could have sworn your name was something other than “Frank.”  Never mind.  My husband and I were wondering whether you would like to join us downstairs for an afternoon refreshment?’

‘Well, that’s very kind of you, Mrs. B!  I shall just finish off up here and join you there directly.’  Frank wore what he thought to be his friendly smile as he closed the door, again surprising his landlady by its alacrity.

 

VII

 

Alex was enjoying having the cell to himself.  The television remained switched off and the peace was welcome.  He arranged his scant belongings neatly into the battered cupboard at the end of his bunk.  The inside of this boasted soft pornographic pages cut from a variety of hedonistic magazines, air-brushed skin and digitally enhanced breast-swellings.  A strong odour of mint permeated the shelves, from where the cuttings had been applied with toothpaste.

No sooner had he accustomed himself to a pleasant solitude than the heavy jingle-clank of solid metal abruptly echoed throughout his cell.  Behind the prison guard limped a slight, ill-favoured man with a neatly-trimmed goatee, his right hand hanging limp parallel to the lower section of his ribcage.  This graceless creature shuffled gradationally into the room, his voice booming at the guard as the latter hurried him in.

From this moment onwards, Alex’s existence in jail became nigh-on unbearable.  From the outset, Rankin (as this was the heathen’s name) made it his business to grate upon each individual nerve-ending in his young cell-mate’s body.  His incessant asinine hyperbole, “That was wicked, bruv!,’ ‘This is my yard, bruv,  yours and mine!” and myriad similar vulgar explosions put the young man permanently on edge.  Such was his loathing of Rankin that he invariably feigned sleep by seven in the evening and, knowing that real sleep would elude him yet for several hours, lay perfectly still with eyes closed and thought endless thoughts in preparation for temporary dreams.

The worst thing about Rankin, Alex always maintained, was his need for the television to constantly blare out.  Never was that hateful box at rest, even in the smallest hours of the morning.  Several times Alex quietly rose from his top bunk to switch the thing off, only for his cell-mate to waken a few moments thereafter and switch it back on.  ‘Can’t sleep without TV, bruv, you know that!’ he invariably complained before returning to his atrociously loud slumbers, which was possibly the second-worst thing about him.  Rankin’s snoring was beyond anything Alex could ever have imagined in the world outside: each tortured inhalation sounded like a train would sound if one were to hold one’s ear to the tracks, building gradually in volume before finally thundering over one’s head.  This was followed by a grating, nasal whistle also reminiscent of a train, albeit a train from the steam age.

Meal times were hardly much better.  His cell-mate devoured the prison portions like a toothless horse.  The schlopping, gurgling noise forced Alex to clench his fists so tightly that his fingernails embedded themselves into his lower palms, often cutting into the skin and drawing wispy streaks of pale blood which never ran down his hand, but remained, sore and slowly healing as reminders of the protracted torture.

 

VIII

 

The Dracula Tour has long been a staple of Whitby’s peculiar attractions.  A hybrid of museum, horror house and cheap thrills this concern sits incongruous amongst the arcades and tea rooms.  Sherman entered this emporium of schlock grudgingly.

‘How old are you, anyway?  Twelve?’

‘One is never too old to revisit the simple pleasures of one’s youth, young Nixon!’  Harold was in unquestionably high spirits, a boyish intrepidity borne of something other than the volume of alcohol in his blood.  He cheerfully paid for two adult tickets and waited like an expectant dog for Sherman to begin the tour with him.  ‘come on, you miserable bugger!’

The tour began much as Sherman had imagined; cheap models and nylon cobwebs.  Tinny speakers blared out ineffective cadences of terror.  It was difficult to see more than a few feet in front of him, yet Harold seemed to know the way, even though he had declared beforehand that this too was his first time.

A slam of foot, a garish plastic mask occupying his entire range of vision.  ‘Bastard!’  Sherman’s entire body was an ice-cold attack of pins-and-needles.  He stood catching his breath as the youth disappeared back through a curtain sectioned off for staff.  Harold’s laughter filled the narrow corridor.

‘That’s not funny, you old twat!’

‘The look on your face,’ the elder said when his hilarity had subsided enough.  Harold wiped his damp eyes and pressed him on.  ‘Come on, let’s get moving before he comes back and bites yer bum!’

 

IX

 

It was by some tragic circumvolution of contingency, that hateful, irascible entity dubbed fate, that when Alex was released from prison his Mephistophelian counter-part was simultaneously set loose upon society.  Rankin limped through the gates as pathetically as he had arrived, until out of the line of vision of any prison officials.  Thereafter his infirmities appeared to Alex less pronounced.  Had he really been swinging the lead for all those weeks? Alex thought to himself as he quickened his pace down the road, both exhilarated to be out of the monstrous building and desperate that Rankin would not follow him.

‘Wait up, bruv!’ his deep, croaking voice buffeted down the busy city street.

‘Look, Rankin…’ Alex began.  How infuriating it was that, after all this time being terrorised by this hateful presence, he found it difficult to say anything which might offend!  ‘I’ve got tons to do, mate,’ was the bluntest rejection available to him as he stood helpless while the object of his loathing closed the distance between them by decreasingly faltering steps.

Students lay in groups in the lazy Welsh sun.  All around him, Alex saw the hue and cry of ambling pedestrians, people who Alex told himself probably thought they had problems.  At least they have somewhere to go tonight, he mused.

The heavy restlessness of isolation had settled upon him even before leaving the prison.  For Alex had nowhere to go; he could not make the journey back to the Midlands, as he feared the reception he would get from his mother.  True, she would in all probability be in drink, yet this could never be any guarantee of safety from her sharp tongue.  After so long inside those brick walls, Alex was reluctant to make his situation any worse.

 

X

 

The second attempt to terrify Sherman was markedly less effective than the first.  He told the youth in the mask of Frankenstein’s Monster to “get back behind the curtain and shove his plastic knife up his arse,” which again met with Harold’s amusement.

The corridor turned slightly and the pair came across a wooden dais covered with fake blood and paper Mache.  The curtain in the background twitched almost imperceptibly before another masked attacker leapt out, wearing a balaclava.

‘Oh, pack it in now,’ shouted Sherman.

The knife this time looked more real, the threat more malevolent.  The assailant raised his blade as if to plunge it in earnest through Sherman’s heart.

Harold was too quick: he realised the situation well before anything dawned on Sherman.  In a heartbeat he leapt to push his friend out of harm’s way before the knife came down and penetrated the old man’s chest with the ease of a red-hot table-knife through butter.

The figure in the balaclava stood and stared dumbly at Harold’s collapsed form on the floor, a rich crimson halo gently forming around the old man until, a few interminable seconds later, it seemed as though the situation struck him.  He turned and fled back through the curtain.

 

Chapter Six

 

I

 

Detective Inspector Nicholas Pope was new to the Whitby area, having recently been transferred from the East Riding district.  The call to the Dracula Tour on the promenade was his first real case, previous petty matters of alleged common assault notwithstanding.

For a long time now, DI Pope had been wondering whether police work might not be the incorrect occupation for a man such as he.  The criminal mind was by its very nature deceitful; he had no problem with this, providing he was able to see through that deceit.  But that was where his difficulties began: he despaired of a world in which the crooks turned out to be cleverer than himself.  This was not the way things should be.  Nicholas knew this from all those American cop shows he had loved to watch as a child.  Nobody ever pulled the wool over Columbo’s wonky eyes.

Happy accident after happy accident had seen Pope rise up through the ranks; from his days on the beat and on to his lengthy service as plain, old Sergeant Pope and now, as a man on the wrong side of fifty and the right side of divorce, he was very near the top of the pile.  All of this had happened without much conscious effort on the DI’s part.  In fact, it had happened almost without any consciousness at all, as though he had been looking the other way whilst all of these promotions were being dished out to him.

Glad though he was of his unwittingly successful career, his last post at Hull gave him the worst years of his life.  It was during this period that his wife had left him.  DI Pope was also stationed in Hull when his career took a near-fatal nosedive.

A gang of young hoodlums, or “scrotes,” as Detective Inspector Pope was unofficially wont to call them, had been causing merry chaos in the Holderness Road area.  Not a thing to initiate the involvement of an officer as distinguished as Pope, clearly.  Things, however, escalated beyond control when one member of this gang (“Sack” was DI Pope’s collective and, again, totally off-the-record term for plural youngsters) caused the death of a shopkeeper.

The case had been handled badly from the start: botched interviews, misplaced statements and lost evidence.  The press had filled their boots at the Inspector’s expense, calling into question the competence of the force, as the suspect walked free as a bird out of the court.

And now he had more potential egg on his face: an old man, stabbed for no apparent reason and left for dead.  No motives to speak of, and no clue either who or where the attacker was.  So far, only one witness.  DI Pope flicked through the shabby leaves of his notebook.  Ah, yes: Nixon.  That was the fellow’s name.  He would of course need to take a full statement as soon as possible, but for now this Nixon had gone on with the victim to the hospital.

 

 

II

 

Hospitals always tend to be thought of in hues of white and pale, disinfectant blue.  After a visit, either in the capacity of patient or visitor, one remembers afterwards the sterile environment with its sparkling white walls.  Yet, bizarrely, this is rarely the case.  Hospitals are drab, colourless places with badly-applied monotone paintwork and chipped concrete.

Sherman Nixon had no inclination to note the colour scheme of the emergency ward: Harold had been taken directly to theatre, and as he sat waiting for news he comprehended nothing except the previous hour, and the impending seconds.

The air was baked by artificial heat.  Despite the freezing temperature outside, topped by the nebulous stages of decorating for Christmas Sherman nevertheless felt like a dog shut inside a car on a hot summer’s day.  He paced the antiseptic corridor to occupy his mind, counting his lengths.

Sherman was on his twelfth span back to the theatre doorway when a red-faced consultant appeared.

‘Mr. Nixon?’  Sherman nodded an agitated affirmative.

‘I’m afraid it’s bad news…’

 

III

Frank had wasted little time in returning to his lodgings.  First he had gotten rid of the knife in the only place he thought sensible.  That is, cast it from the end of the jetty without waiting to hear a splash.

Amazingly there was no blood on his clothes, but all the same he stripped and showered, then stuffed the worn shirt, trousers, jacket and even the underwear into two carrier bags.  These two bags he then placed inside another, larger bag and finally this he zipped shut inside of his luggage.

After this he went down to the front room where the house’s proprietors were watching a soap opera on television.  Frank had his mobile phone to his ear and pretended to be deep in conversation.  ‘Yes.  OK.  No, try not to worry.  I’ll be back in a few hours.’

He then made his excuses, paid his bill, bid his hosts farewell and assured them he would return.  Frank knew he would have to look relatively unperturbed, his ersatz phone call notwithstanding.  Then he made haste to the train station to put the loathed town behind him for good.

 

IV

 

Harold had not died of his injuries sustained inside the Dracula Tour.  What had actually claimed Sherman’s friend was the embolism embedded in his brain.

This was the first Sherman had heard of the old man’s illness.  As far as he knew Harold had been in the most admirable state of health; he recalled only the other day – was it yesterday? – when it had been him, Sherman, flagging behind as Harold charged up the one-hundred-and-ninety-nine steps.

But even a revelation like this could not take from Sherman’s immediate thoughts the presence in that house of horrors.  So far the police still knew nothing, otherwise they would surely have given him some news at the hospital.  Sherman could give them no description to speak of, save for that the figure wore a black mask and was about the height of a tall child.

Therefore they would be looking for either a troubled youth or a crazed woman.  Sherman knew nothing about children, other than that he disliked them.  As for women, well, he knew enough of those, but none deranged enough, surely, to commit murder?

He collected Harold’s heartbreakingly meagre belongings and left the hospital.

 

V

 

So now it’s murder, Detective Inspector Pope thought to himself as the call came in from a constable posted at the hospital.

Well, this is a new game of piss-about entirely, he added to himself as he grabbed his coat and flew past the front desk towards his unpretentious Ford parked out front.  Pope slammed the car door shut and took out his notebook.  Nixon.  ‘Time for that statement,’ he told the emptiness in the passenger seat.

Nicholas Pope had always longed for a partner; some Lewis to his Morse.  There had been weaker moments when the DI would have settled for a Penfold to his Danger Mouse, but even this was not to be.  He simply was not sufficiently dynamic to require a right-hand man to pull him back when he went too far over that thin blue line.  In point of fact, he was not even dynamic enough to warrant being taken off the force, or even having to stand and receive a stern dressing-down, as all of his heroes had.

He had always harboured hopes that the rank of Detective Inspector would inspire fear and respect throughout the lower orders, but it was to Pope’s amazement when this failed to be the case.  Nicholas simply could not fathom a world in which such freakish perversions of decorum could go unchecked.  None of his inferiors ever addressed him as “Sir,” and as for fear and respect…

 

VI

 

When Sherman finally returned to Mrs. Hargreaves’ house he fully expected her to be in bed.  However as he traversed the steep path the front door flew open and his landlady quickly ushered him inside.

‘Oh, chicken, I’m so sorry.  I heard all about poor Mr. Cartwright.  Come on through to the bar and have something for the shock.’

Mrs. Hargreaves mixed a daiquiri for herself and an unspecified cocktail for Sherman.  He hardly noticed its potency as he swallowed deep, thirsty draughts of the ambiguous libation.

‘The police have been here, chicken.  That’s how I heard the news.  I told them you’d gone back home.’

‘Why?’  He placed his empty glass on the bar.  ‘I’ve already spoken to them tonight.  They know it wasn’t me who stabbed him.’

‘No, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt, you know, to let you have some peace.  If you do want to speak to them, you can always contact the station from here and say I got it wrong.’

‘Not tonight, Mrs. H.  I’d better had speak to them at some point, though, if only to see if they’re any closer to the shit who did it.’  Sherman gazed through the varnished, deep-red patina of the bar top whilst his landlady fixed him another drink.  ‘I can’t get my head ‘round why anyone would want to do something like that.  I could understand, believe me I could, if someone was desperate and tried to mug us, but there was nothing like that.  It was as if the bastard just wanted someone to go at.’

‘Mr. Nixon, I’ve seen so many things in my lifetime, and it’s a sorry thing to say, but nothing shocks me these days.  We’re all cut from different strips of fabric, chicken.  Some people just aren’t wired the same as the rest of us.’

‘But Harry had no bad in him!  He was a very decent chap, and…’

‘What, chicken?’  Mrs. Hargreaves came around from her business side of the bar.

‘He was just a lovely man.  I think he was the only friend I’ve ever had.’  As the truth of his own words sunk in, with a pathos that might be called “epiphany,” Sherman Nixon felt a thing he had not felt in time beyond memory.  Water built up like a flooded dam over the bottom lids of his eyes, unrecognised at first after so many years, and finally broke their bank.  Mrs. Hargreaves gently placed her arms around Sherman Nixon as he surrendered to a thing so alien to him that he could only perceive as a third-party observer.  Sherman watched himself as the last draughts of impotent energy left his exhausted body, and had nothing but dumbstruck self-pity as he saw himself sob with the fatigue and heartache of decades.

 

VII

 

There was no getting around the fact: he had made a complete hash of everything.  As he made his deliberately slow return home Frank castigated himself for his mishandling of what should have been a straightforward procedure.

All he had had to do was get Nixon and force him to confess, and pay no mind to the violence which he would in all likelihood have had to employ.  That was the entirety of his task in one tiny, conceptual nutshell.

Instead, he had panicked and stabbed an innocent old man.  This was the level of competence to which Frank would always henceforward measure himself, and all his doings.  Nobody had been avenged, no justice had been apportioned, and he was certainly no closer to hearing the truth about his son’s death.

 

VIII

 

Sometimes, Detective Nicholas Pope thought to himself, things were destined to be swept under the carpet.

He had missed Nixon by a mile, there was no home address at the guest house.  None of this mattered, however: Pope had seen killers aplenty in his long, colourless career, and Sherman Nixon, it was quite obvious to anyone taking more than a cursory glance at him, was not such a thing.  This conclusion had nothing to do with the technical side of his job, the profiling, evidential element of the drawn-out policing procedure – this was basic common sense, and it did not take a rank as high as his to use common sense.

Besides from this there had been no witnesses, save for Nixon himself, no suspects, no apparent motives, and on top of everything else he now had in front of him documentary evidence that there was even no crime committed.

A young Police Constable had found Frank Cartwright’s official records upon Pope’s request.  It was all there in front of him.  In the eyes of the law there was nothing he could do, even if Cartwright’s killer knocked on his door there and then, covered in blood and confessing like a Catholic.

Pope went over the evidence in front of him yet again, but yet again this offered him no comfort.  In black and white, plain as day, no ifs, buts or maybes…

Frank Cartwright had died in 1976.

 

IX

 

Christmas had arrived.  The Anchor’s interior was swollen with vulgar baubles reflecting ambient fairy lights and mock candelabra.  A fixed festive menu repeated itself without the slightest degree of variation from table to table, printed on glossy, corporate card.

Alex had never eaten Christmas dinner anywhere except home, where he was accustomed to his step-mother’s sinewy meats and pale, yellow greens.  Far from the savoury richness and bounty that came to his mind when he thought of the quality Perky would be used to.

He checked his watch: still a good twenty minutes until she was due to arrive.  He bought another glass of beer and fidgeted impatiently with a thin, cardboard drinks mat.  Alex could not place the feeling, but somewhere inside of him bloomed hope that this time things would not have to be so nasty.

 

X

 

There really was no need to remain in Whitby.  Sherman packed and left Mrs. Hargreaves’ guest house the next morning.

He felt robbed by the place; the famous Abbey mocked him as he waited outside the train station, smoking incessantly.  Mrs. Hargreaves had offered to accompany him to the station, given the circumstances, but Sherman had declined.  It was a shame to depart so soon, but another glimpse towards the top of the one-hundred-and-ninety-nine steps, and then to pan horizontally in the direction of the venue of the previous evening’s assault, assured him that to leave now was surely the right thing to do.

Sherman had gone to the beach that morning for the first time.  The purple promise of daylight appeared in gradient on the horizon, offering vague glimpses at the troubled waters of the North Sea.  Sand collected in his loafers, prickling his toes and the soles of his feet; shoal crackled underfoot, snapping like the gnarled, withered knuckles of an arthritic.  Sherman’s glasses slipped constantly from his face, causing him to send icicles tickling throughout his upper-body each time he was compelled to push them back upon his face.

Was it retribution he should be wanting?  Who should he seek, if this were the case, in order to exact it?

It all seemed displaced, out of order.  Men like Harold were not the type to die of random violence.  In any event, the tumour in his skull was due to take him, at some vague, unfixed point in the future.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

I

 

It came as no surprise to Sherman when he found Lisa loitering around his front door.  If he was honest with himself, he had to admit that it was, startlingly enough, pleasing that she was there.  Like a glass of cold water in the face of a drunk; her presence had the sobering, equilibrium-giving quality of knowing that no matter how surreal one’s life became, there still remained some poor and tormented souls who had no concept of any other kind of being.

‘You’re back, then.’  She said with a feigned distracted air.  Her eyes glowed a more vivid light blue than Sherman had ever before noticed.

‘Still on the ball, as ever.’  Sherman had to fight the temptation to hug her, to wrap his arms around her acreage and squeeze.  Something about the vast unmoveability of Lisa gave him a profound sense of homecoming.

‘Are you gonna tell me where you’ve been all this time?’

‘Yes, Lisa.  Just let me get the door open and I’ll fill you in on everything I’ve been doing over this past week.’  Sherman penetrated the keyhole and heard the satisfying metallic click of a familiar lock.  He yearned for the familiar smells of his flat and the familiar tattered domesticity of his front room.

Lisa was prepared for the door slamming in her face.

‘Not until I’ve told you my news, Sherman!’  The door was powerless against the sturdiness of her foot.

‘What news?  Have you wet the bed, or something?’

‘Don’t be nasty.  First there was that man I had to throw out of your flat…’

‘How the hell did he get in there in the first place?’  Too late, Sherman acknowledged the wrong question in the wrong order.  ‘What man?’

That man I thought was nice.  The little one who came to visit you.’

‘Oh, him?  What was that tossbag doing ‘round here again?’

‘’E never said.  ‘E tried getting funny with me though, so I took your beer off ‘im…’

Why was he drinking my beer?’

‘Because I offered it ‘im, obviously.’

Sherman surrendered: that part of him which felt self-righteousness and propriety lay itself down and let the battle continue on top of it.

‘Yes.  Obviously.’

‘And then there were those feet…’

Alright, thought Sherman.  I’m going in.  ‘Feet?’

‘Yeah, feet.  Well, you know ‘ow I’ve been going to the gym lately.’

‘Have you?’

‘Sherman, I’ve been going for ages!’

‘Got a machine that simulates the exercise of swapping channels now, I suppose?’

Lisa’s face told him he had crossed a line.  ‘I’m sorry.  Go on – what about the gym?’

‘Well, they’ve got these signs outside advertising things…’

‘Gym things?’

‘Yes, I suppose so.  But they’re really weird because the signs are on these little legs, see, and these little legs have trainers on.’

‘Trainers?’

‘On the feet!’

‘Oh, I get you.  And?’

‘And they creeped me out, Sherman!’

‘So that’s the big news, I take it?  The gym have billboards with trainers on.  Why on Earth didn’t you try to get in touch?  I could’ve been here in a couple of hours!’

‘No, that’s not it, actually.  Each time I’ve been going to the gym there’ve bin more of ‘em, see.  One day there were four, the next day seven.  Until they started following me ‘ome!’

‘I see,’ said Sherman, after juggling in his mind a number of possible responses.  ‘Well, it’s been good to catch up, O Mentalist One, but I think I can hear my life calling…’

‘There was that other thing, too, I suppose.’

‘I don’t care.  Goodnight.’

‘The weird thing in the park…’

‘Piss off, Lisa…wait…what…weird thing in the park?’

‘I’m not sure, I…’

‘Right, let’s go.’  Sherman threw his bag into the hallway, slammed the door shut and, with Lisa’s arm in his grip made his way to the park.

 

II

 

‘I told you it was weird!’

Weird it most certainly was.  The huge “O” which Sherman had all but forgotten about was still there, but there were also more bizarre markings in the ground, forming a pattern just on the periphery of Sherman’s recognition.

‘I don’t get it, Lisa…do you?’

‘Not at first, no.  I saw it the other night when I came down to see if the trainers were here too.’

‘Very wise,’ cracked Sherman, despite himself.

‘But it wasn’t until I was leaving the park that it made more sense.’  She steered him back towards the front gate, walking slowly backwards.  ‘Round about…here.’

It took a few moments to register.

‘Bollocks above me!’  Sherman said this, and no more.

For on the ground, in the earth, under his feet were word upon word grooved just as precisely as printed letters on a page:

 

‘Sherman Nixon felt keenly in a late November afternoon, through soft cushioning along the front of his loafer, a sharp protrusion from the dew-encrusted emerald carpet of the park.’

 

III

 

‘I think I may be going as mad as you,’ Sherman said to Lisa, when they were back in his living room.

Christmas was well and truly setting in; the television carolled and chimed intermittently with each advertisement break, in apparent concert with a world billions of miles alien to Sherman Nixon.  No, he reminded himself for safety: I could never be as far gone as her.  He watched Lisa as she picked through a bag of crisps on his threadbare sofa, his philosophical paradox hardly worth a thought when compared to what she might be looking for at the bottom of that bag.

‘I wonder how long it all goes on for.’  He remarked to the masticating mass of her face.  ‘The writing on the ground,’ he added to avoid confusion.

‘Probably for as long as you’re alive, I should ‘ave thought.’

She had a point; what if the words represented his lifetime?  How far would he have to travel to find out how he dies?  What would come afterwards, and why was he relevant?

‘How can you sit there grazing when you’ve just seen what I’ve seen?’

‘I saw it days ago, Sherman.  It’s not news anymore, so stop going on about yourself, please!’

It really was as simple as that to Lisa, and for the moment Sherman admired her for it.

 

IV

 

‘In a weird kind of way, the worst thing about it all, is that nobody else seems to notice it.’

Sherman had persuaded Lisa to return with him to the park during the brief hours of daylight the following day.  As they stood and read the giant lettering on the ground a seemingly endless stream of dog-owners passed them by, and it was true that they appeared either not to notice, or to discern Sherman’s biography underfoot.

‘Maybe it’s something that’s only meant to be seen by you?’ replied Lisa.

‘If that’s the case, how come you can see it too?’

‘Don’t ask me.  I wish I hadn’t told ya about it.  Want a chip?’  A greasy, vinegary paper bundle was shoved under Sherman’s nose.  He had no appetite.  Waving away the package, Sherman lit a cigarette.

‘I met this bloke while I was away.  Did I mention it?’

‘Nope.  Was ‘e a nutter?’

‘Not at all.  Why ask that?’

‘The people you know usually end up being nutters, that’s all.’

Sherman cast Lisa an appraising glance.  ‘Touché,’ he responded.  ‘But this chap might have been able to throw some light on all of this.  He had a way of understanding things most other people wouldn’t.’

‘Can’t you give him a ring and ask him?’

‘Not now, no.  He was killed the other night.’

‘Get away!  ‘ere, have a bit of me saveloy.’

 

V

 

The more he thought about it, the more convinced Sherman became that the only person who could have given him any kind of explanation for what was in the park was the man whose murder he had witnessed.

For some unknowable reason, Sherman felt certain that there would be a link, no matter how tenuous, between this and his acquaintance with Harold.  If only in the way that these two ostensibly unrelated matters were without doubt the two most bizarre, enigmatic events in his life so far, they belonged in the same category.  Sherman would never be able to think of the one without instant correspondence to the other.

Sherman mused upon the possibility that his initial reaction was the right one; perhaps he no longer had the right to think of Lisa as deranged, notwithstanding haunted paint, matutinal ghosts or billboards on legs.  For what had lately been happening to him was no more far-fetched than the things which his neighbour believed were happening.

Must he now also believe in these fantasies?  To share in Lisa’s fevered imaginings?  Surely to deny the one was to abnegate the other.

Sherman dreamed of Harold, sat on his haunches on the beach in Whitby, scratching out his own life story in the sand.  As he approached the old man, Harold looked up with an alien look of aggression, almost snarling.  Sherman backed away, only to try again to get close, but each time the same thing happened.  On his fourth attempt Sherman was stopped in his tracks by a black, wraith-like figure emerging from the sea.  This apparition went unseen by Harold, who busied himself in the sand.

In an instant the figure produced an evil-looking blade from beneath its cowl, plunging it straight through the old man’s back.  It then removed its black exterior and turned to look at Sherman, smiling sadistically.

It came without the slightest degree of surprise.  The figure was Frank.

 

VI

 

Elizabeth fought with the inclination to admit defeat and confess to herself that she had been wrong about Richard.  From their first date at the Anchor, events had conspired to make her re-evaluate her opinion of relationships.

It was during that first date that they had had their first argument.  A trifling matter, in hindsight, but one which had seemed crucial to her at the time.  Richard’s steady drinking had evolved into an outright session of Bacchanalian proportions; he tried his very best to initiate fights with anybody who happened to be within fighting distance, spilled as many drinks as he had managed by that time to consume and, all in all, seemed to hold Elizabeth indirectly responsible for his troubled past.

He had told her nothing, at first, that gave her any indication of the nature of his past; no mention did he make of his parents, his family or his upbringing.  Only later in the day, when out of a sense of unease Elizabeth had tried to match him drink-for-drink, did she manage to coerce some kind of history from him.  This he delivered in tiny, almost incoherent mutterings, which she could not decide in her unsteady state whether to take for the truth or fabricated padding.

Eventually he told her of his time in prison, the assault which had led him there and, inevitably, to his conspiracy with her father.

It was testament to her powers of perseverance, Elizabeth thought, that she had not chosen to end the relationship there and then.  True, her father had acted behind her back and meddled in her private affairs, but then, had she not also wished to finish her association with Sherman Nixon?  Was not Richard’s appearance in her life just as welcome with her father’s assistance as it would have been without it?

So, with the festive season hurtling towards her and the long cold nights threatening to engulf her in their interminable arctic embrace, Elizabeth carried on her relationship with Richard.  If only to prove to her father that she was mistress of her own affairs.

 

VII

 

Alex found that he was not overly fond of Perky.  On their first date she had bullied him into telling her about his troubles with the law, and already there was evidence that those pernicious seeds of a hen-pecked relationship had been sown.  She nagged him about having a few drinks now and then, even though whenever they were together she was often in her cups.

She was deliberately ambiguous with what she wanted from him, too.  When he drank it was too much, when he was sober he was no fun.

The day after he had sat through her whining in the Anchor she had made it her business to show him off to her friends.  To Alex’s complete lack of surprise he had found that he detested each and every one of them.

So little affinity did he feel for her, in fact, that Alex had not even bothered to tell Elizabeth his real name.  Nor could he remember whether he had, on that first night, divulged all the facts about his spell in prison, but if not then he really had no inclination to correct this.

He felt certain, however, that he had not told her about Rankin.  Or what he had done with his corpse.

 

VIII

 

The revelation in his dream could not be put down to his imagination.  Thinking it over, Sherman knew that there was only one person it could have been on that fateful day in Whitby, when his friendship with Harold, the only real friendship he could remember having, was brought to its solemn conclusion.

That nasty character who had been haunting him for weeks now was the only candidate Sherman had ever entertained as Harold’s killer.  The only surprise was that he had not reached his conclusion sooner, and the only mystery lay in what the diminutive Frank had been doing in Whitby, and what his motives were in stabbing his friend through the chest.

Sherman tried to make some sense of this whilst sorting through his dirty laundry.  The possibilities played themselves out in background scenery of his mind whilst superficially concentrating on the mounds of soiled linen in his mayonnaise tub.

There it is, thought Sherman upon finding a tiny pair of underwear: the obligatory woman’s knickers left behind after the break-up.  He thought of Elizabeth whilst feeling the smooth-course-smooth texture of the garment, and wondered how she was getting on.  This was only an abstract question, for to him it was neither here nor there.  She had been the one to break it off with him, when all was aid and done.  Had she not mentioned someone else?

By the time he had finished this most-loathed of chores, Sherman had unearthed no less than five pairs of underwear, two bras and a nightdress.  A couple of pairs of knickers he could have happily thrown in the rubbish, but with this amount of clothing came the responsibility to return it.

 

IX

 

Snow had fallen hard whilst Sherman had been indoors.  Two or three inches of pristine, virgin whiteness blanketed the park in a fairytale whimsicality, which came with a  silence of crystal purity.

Sherman was glad to see that the writing on the ground had been completely obscured.  For the time being, at least, it was better than an erasure: he could convince himself that the discovery had been nothing more than a surreal imagining, borne of stress and grief.

It had been a long time since he had been to Elizabeth’s flat, and even then he had only gone there twice, as far as he could recall.  No doubt she would be agitated when she saw him, if indeed she was there at all: Sherman remembered that she hated being on her own in the flat.

But maybe she would not be alone, if what she had told him about meeting somebody else had been true.

There was no curiosity to this, Sherman found.  Either there would be somebody there with Elizabeth or there would not.  Not for the first time he wondered if there was some stunted aspect to his emotions; most other men would at least feel slightly uneasy at the prospect of meeting their ex-lover’s new partner.

Yet it remained Sherman’s sole purpose to deliver the items of clothing and return home.  In fact, it would make this task far simpler were she not at home.  As he boarded the train he found himself hoping fervently for this very thing.

 

X

 

It was to Sherman’s indifference that he found Elizabeth at home, and alone.  She rushed him inside and closed her front door, after checking that nobody had seen any of this.

‘How’s it all going, Liz?’

‘Wonderful.  What’s new with you?’

‘Oh…not much.  Witnessed a murder, had a few drinks.  Same old, really.  Oh, I nearly forgot, some giant’s been stalking me, and now he’s written my biography in the grounds of the park just by me.’

‘You’re not funny, you know, Sherman.’

‘I’m well aware of this.’  Sherman handed Elizabeth the bag containing her clothes.  ‘I brought all this back for you.’

‘Thanks.  I was wondering where some of this stuff had got to.’  She rummaged through the clothing, lifting this and that item and inspecting it doubtfully.’

‘Well, now you know.  It’s OK, it’s been washed.’

‘My God, it is lucky!’

Sherman took in the interior of Elizabeth’s flat.  Vague recollections returned to him of nights spent there.  A few drinks sipped in near-silence, and then the ritualistic love-making.

‘You’re not angry with me, are you?’  Elizabeth called from her bedroom, where she was crouched, putting the returned items of clothing away in their appropriate drawers in her dresser.

‘Nah,’ Sherman replied.  ‘To be honest, Liz, I was waiting for it to come to an end, sooner or later.  We weren’t exactly a happy couple, were we?  And it’s not as if the sex really mattered that much.’

‘So that’s all it was to you, then?’  She craned her neck around the doorway to her bedroom, followed shortly by the rest of her.  Elizabeth stood in the middle-ground between rooms, a squinted look of interrogation on her face.

‘Well, yeah.  It was the same for you, though, right?’

‘Not at all!’  She rushed up to Sherman with her eyes wide.  ‘I thought something really good could have come of us!’

‘Oh.’  Sherman searched for the right thing to say.  ‘You could have let me in on that little fact.’

‘Come off it, Sherman.  You always knew I was ready to settle down.  And didn’t I show you enough affection, damn it?’

‘Not really, Liz, no.  In fact there was nothing from you at all, most of the time.’

‘Oh, what a load of crap!  I spent all my time waiting for you to give me the first indication that you gave a shit!  It was just like talking to a great big brick wall with glasses!’

‘Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. Liz.’  Sherman was about to take his leave, but Elizabeth clearly had more to say.

‘You know, I’m glad that my father went out of his way to split us up.  If he hadn’t have fixed it for me and Richard, I still would have been coming to your flat and putting up with your moody silences, waiting for it all to be over and done with so that I could come home again!’

‘What’s your dad got to do with it?’

‘I told you.  He’s the one who fixed me up with Richard.’

‘But why?’

‘I don’t know.  He just didn’t like you, that’s all.’

‘But the twat’s never even met me!’  Sherman once again tried to make it for the front door.

‘Yes he has, apparently.  Richard told me…’

Sherman spun around to face her.  ‘And just who is this arsehole Richard?  I’m damn sure that he’s never met me either!’

‘You know he’s my boyfriend, Sherman!’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Sherman waved away the statement.  It looked to him as though Elizabeth was not as convinced as he that the presence of a new lover was of the most negligible significance to him.  In the face of this, he decided to humour her.

‘So where did you and Richard meet?’

‘On the internet, if you really must know.’

‘Oh, be still, my beating bladder!’

‘Piss off, Sherman.’

‘Don’t worry.  I’m going.’

‘Good.’

Good!

He both stood, looking at one another, unsure of what the next move should be.

‘Aren’t you supposed to be going?’ said Elizabeth sarcastically.

‘Yeah, I suppose so.  Listen, I’m sorry about all that.  I wish you all the best, I really do…’

Sherman’s apology was cut short by a knock at the door.

Shit!  It’s Richard!  He’ll go absolutely spare if he finds you here!’

Sherman paid her no attention.  He went straight to the front door, slid across the thick iron bolt and opened it to see Elizabeth’s lover for himself.

However, it was not Richard who stood before him, eye to eye, but Frank, who blinked unbelievingly, his eyes level with Sherman’s chest.

‘I don’t believe this!  Everywhere I go, you’re there!’  The surprise of seeing Frank had temporarily knocked from Sherman’s memory the dream of the night before.  As he looked at Frank, though, and his flattened, ugly little face, piece by piece the nightmare returned.

Nixon!’ spat Frank in that nasal whine that Sherman had not missed.

‘Yes you little shit…’  Sherman abandoned his speaking and grabbed the short man by his neck yelping helplessly into Elizabeth’s living room.  He threw frank wholesale against her far wall, knocking a picture of her brother from the wall.  Frank landed amongst the glass splinters, yet had no time to regain his senses before Sherman was on top of him, delivering blow after blow.

Sherman was no fighter; each punch seemed to deflect impotently off the top of Frank’s rock-hard skull, apparently causing more damage to Sherman’s knuckles than anything else.

Why did you do it, Frank?  Putting a knife in an innocent old man!  You evil, twisted piece of flotsam!’

Frank spat out whining pules between gagging breaths.  ‘It wasn’t…meant…for him.  It…was…supposed to…be you.’

Sherman stopped.  He kept his grip on the little man, but his rage, for the moment, had been stemmed.

‘But…why?’

Looking back at Sherman was a face of unbridled malevolence.  Frank’s face had become the vision of justified retribution, of justice metered out.

‘Because you killed my son.’

At precisely the same moment as these words left Frank’s mouth, Sherman felt an icy steel grip in between his shoulder blades.  A warm eruption, which felt like boiling syrup, flooded down past the small of his back and formed a thick, unctuous rivulet into his underwear and the cheeks of his anus, blending with the sweat of anger and frustration.

It took several moments to realise that Elizabeth had stabbed him.  He turned his head to face her, standing there with her hands over her face, stunned as she watched the silver piece of kitchenware embedded in his shoulder blades.

Numbness had entirely overtaken him.  He could not move his body, although he found the energy to mouth the words ‘So…that’s where the writing stops.’

Sherman then slumped forward towards unconsciousness and, for all he knew and felt, death.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

I

 

Golden sand whispered through the cracks and fissures of words; the beach was nothing more than a halcyon stretch of salt-washed manuscript, and the dull glow of the orange-tinted sun a bedside reading lamp casting its half-interested shafts of dim illumination onto the type-face of Sherman Nixon’s life.

Dunes surrounded one half of his panorama, cupping the shore in a brown half-moon of irregular peaks.  When he scrunched his face up – for he no longer wore his glasses – to focus on the dunes he saw that, instead of sand, they were formed from letters; a rusted chainmail alphabet.

The sound of the ocean hit him violently.  Sherman had not noticed the silence before, but the noise sent electric spikes down his spine, supercharging his heart.  The sensation was as if a stranger had stolen up behind him and clamped two enormous shells against his ears, much like a pair of headphones.  This aural attack was made up not from the sound of crashing waves, however, but from a chorus of disembodied chatter.

Voices of every timber and pitch coursed through his brain.  Angry voices, gentle voices alike.  Booming arguments rattled on behind whispered confessions; the laughter of children battled the sobbing of the elderly, but not one voice did Sherman recognise.

A stunted humanoid silhouette shuffled from the top of a an alpha-dune, its arms flailing as if to attract Sherman’s attention.  Its pace looked to be brisk, though the progress seemed eternal.

When the figure was no more than twenty yards away, Sherman discerned the form of a male child, no older than twelve or thirteen.  His slicked-back, jet hair slipped at the front in a cow-lick, a white collared shirt flapped uncontrollably from the bottom of a green tank-top.

‘You made it, then!’  The young boy called out to him from a decreasing distance.

‘Looks like it.’

‘Do you not like it here?’ the boy encompassed the scenery with both arms.  Sherman could see the flourishes of acne upon the boy’s chapped red cheeks, and the beginnings of downy outcrops from the split in his partially-unbuttoned shirt.

‘It looks…different.’

‘Oh, it is different!  For all the time I’ve lived here, I’ve never been able to think of a single place like it.  But this is only the beginning, Sherman, trust me.’

‘You know who I am?’

‘Of course, ya daft bogger!’

‘It’s not considered polite to talk to your elders like that.  When I was your age, I’d have gotten a clip ‘round the ear for saying that to my dad.’

‘Quite right, too!’

A crab scuttled past Sherman’s foot.  It was roughly the size of a Yorkshire Terrier, and it carried in each claw an envelope.

‘What’s going on here?’  Sherman placed his hand with what he meant to be gentility upon the young boy’s shoulder.  The boy flinched, however, and took a step back.

‘Careful, Sherman!  You’ll have me on me arse!’

‘Sorry, sorry…’ Sherman removed his hand and made placating hand gestures.  ‘But what is happening?’

‘That was just the afternoon delivery.  The words have to get to the city, you know, whether we stand here all day gassing, or not!’

‘Why?  What city?’

‘Good God, you are green, aren’t you?’

‘Yes.  I think I probably am.  This is all very strange.’

‘Don’t worry, Sherman.  Just stick with me and you’ll soon get the drift of what the crack is here.’

‘Er…thank you.  I think.’

‘No need.  It’s my job.’

‘It is?  Meeting me on the beach is your job?’

‘Not just you, silly.  I meet lots of people here.  But I must admit I was quite pleased when I heard that you were on your way.’

‘But…why?’  Sherman shuffled along the sand, scuffling sentences and revealing paragraphs disjointed and without beginning or end.  A procession of crabs marched along parallel to him and the young boy as they made their way to the nearest alpha-dune.  The letters they were carrying in their oversized claws formed the words “welcome, Sherman.”

‘Oh, you’re a VIP around here, Mr. Nixon!  There’s been talk of your coming here for so long, it’s almost become the stuff of legend.’

The voices in Sherman’s head grew louder, more pronounced.  He realised that they were all agreeing with what the boy had just told him.  Even the booming arguments seemed to have paused to give concurrence to the eminence of Sherman’s presence on the strange beach.  There was an overwhelming sense of weightlessness to everything; Sherman’s body fought gravity and at times it appeared to be winning.

This sensation washed over him in waves, as though some unseen body were half-filling him with helium before giving up, only to begin again when the effect began to wear off.  As they bounced together towards to word-jumbled horizon, the boy took hold of Sherman’s hand and smiled up at him.

‘It’s so good to have you here at last, Sher.’

 

II

 

DI Pope found the report on his desk among various scribbled, anonymous caricatures of himself as a hang-dog beat policeman.  Speech-bubbles were filled, with further careful anonymity, with phrases such as:

“Sorry to bother you, sir.  I’m investigating the disappearance of my arsehole.  Both of my hands have become incapable of locating it.”

And:

“I’ve asked you nicely to confess, mister.  If you still refuse to co-operate I will have no choice but to drop the case!”

These character assassinations were nothing new, and Nicholas only half-noticed them most of the time.  The name upon the single report in his in-tray concerned him far more greatly: Sherman Nixon.

Pope pulled his chair from under his desk.  It’s tattered blue cover failed to hide the ripped foam filling underneath, although he had never took the time to request a replacement.  He took the report from the tray and began to study it.

Nixon, too, had been stabbed.  A regrettable coincidence, true, but the incident had happened in Loughborough, well out of Pope’s jurisdiction.  Who would want him to have this report?

He grabbed the telephone receiver and politely asked to be put through to the headquarters of the Leicester Police.  When a gruff, flat accent answered from the Midlands Pope found himself at a loss to begin.

‘Hello, yes…’ he began.  ‘This concerns a report on my desk regarding a Sherman Nixon.  Yes.  Pardon?  Detective Inspector Nicholas Pope.  No, I work in the North Yorkshire district.  That’s right.  Pope.  P-O-P-E.  Yes, like the Vatican.’

This exchange went on for some time as Pope struggled to make himself understood.  First, he had to explain that he had no idea why the report was on his desk, then that he had been assigned to the case of Harold Cartwright’s murder.  Most difficult of all was telling the person on the other end of the line what the connection was.

Eventually, Pope was told that Nixon was still in a critical condition.  The Midlands Officer repeated what was printed on the page in Pope’s hand, that it had occurred in the domicile of Nixon’s former partner, although she was adamant that it had been an accident.

Forensics were still trying to disprove this most implausible of explanations.

So far, no arrests had been made.

It was unlikely that Nixon would survive the attack.

End of report.

 

III

 

‘The truth of it is, we don’t need you anymore.’

By the look on the youth’s face, it was clear to Frank that it would not, in fact, be as simple as this to remove this latest addition to his daughter’s affections.  Those calculating young eyes were even now considering ways to strike out and inflict suffering.  Suffering to Elizabeth, maybe.  Suffering to himself, without the shadow of a doubt.

‘What I’m trying to say is…’ Frank’s effort of placation became nothing other than a token nugatory gesture.  Alex was far too cunning to ever let himself be subdued by such ham-fisted techniques.

So far, Alex had not said a single word.  He had dumbly entered the pub and zoomed in straight away on the secluded table at which sat Elizabeth’s father, without a sound accepted the lager bought for him and now remained mute as his eyes conveyed all he meant to say.

Jesus, Frank thought, I wonder what the little bastard’s really capable of?  Six foot-God-knows-what of maladjusted recalcitrance spat venom from eyes as deep as the Pit of Hades, patiently peeling the outer layer from a cardboard drinks mat.  Could he be on drugs?

‘Look.  Nixon’s out of the picture.  Job done.  Thanks for your help, and all, but that’s as far as your role in this went, yes?’

Barely audible above the din and clatter of the cheap lunchtime trade, Frank heard a snort of derision escape the youth’s throat.  His mouth remained closed.

This is achieving nothing, Frank thought as he returned to bar to refresh his and Alex’s glasses.  At this rate, he would be sitting at that table until closing time refilling glasses and still not get it through to the imbecile.  But that was no imbecile, was it?  That kid behind him represented the slyness of a chess player and the psychopathy of something which Frank had hitherto been ignorant of.

If things continued in this way, he decided, other methods would have to be brought into play.

 

IV

 

This is the city.’

The boy looked at Sherman as if to measure his awe.  Sherman, though, could only reward him with confusion.

‘Yes, I see.  But what city?’

They had entered an enormous metropolis, far greater than any city Sherman had ever visited.  Tower blocks so tall they seemed to be wearing the clouds as mufflers stood immaculate, and as far as the eye could see were signs in neon proclaiming such things as Sherman had never seen.

‘I don’t know,’ said the boy by his side.  ‘It’s just called The City.’

‘Look, you don’t have to dance around the issue, you know.  I know the score.’

‘You do?’

‘Of course.  I’m dead, aren’t I?’  Sherman did not feel brave, nor insightful.  In fact he was no longer tired or vexed.  He had entered into a blissful state of oneness.

‘No, Sherman,’ the boy spoke as if he were dealing with a moron; a simple-minded fool who, no matter how long you repeat a concept, will never understand.  ‘You’re not dead.  In fact, my money’s on you pulling through.’

‘Pulling through what?’

‘Do you not remember?  Some dotty cow shoved a knife in your back.’

Sherman riffled through the jumble of thoughts and occurrences in his mind for a moment or two.  Eventually, it came back to him.  There he was in Elizabeth’s flat, struggling with Frank, for some reason.  Next came the numb immobility as the knife entered his back.

‘That bitch!’

‘I know,’ the boy replied.  ‘Very rude, that.’

Rude?  I should’ve left her to fend for herself against that maniac!’

‘Who?  Her father?’

‘Eh?  No, that nutter calling himself Frank.’

‘Yes.  Her father, Sherman.’

Sherman stopped dead.  The street they were on was impeccably clean, laid out precisely in silver-coloured brickwork.  Shop awnings of pristine oranges, reds and greens studded the length of the street, stretching on further than Sherman could see.  Adults and children alike strolled leisurely up and down the pavements, unhurried and free of burden.

‘Come on, young ‘un,’ the boy cheerfully cried in a half-sing-song voice.  ‘No time to dawdle!’

‘What’s the rush?’  replied Sherman.

‘People to see, things to do…you know the drill.’

Shuffling along to catch the youth up, Sherman dodged groups of carefree strollers.  All of these gave him a warm smile of recognition.

‘You’ve got a cheek, calling me “young” anyway.  You’re only a nipper yourself.’

‘Am I, though?’

‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re eight-hundred years old now?’

‘My, you are a fatuous, cynical grumpus, Sherman Nixon!  And you haven’t even asked me my name yet!  That’s a bit rude, too.’  The boy began throwing brightly-coloured sweets from a collection of baskets outside a shop they both happened to be passing.  As this confectionary bounced impotently from Sherman’s body he capitulated:

‘So what is your name?  Have I got three guesses, or something?’

‘I’m not telling you now!’  The boy was defiant.  He desisted his playful attack and took a great mouthful of the sweets.

‘You’ll get into trouble, taking sweets without paying for them.’  Sherman admonished.

‘Won’t’

‘Yes, you will!’

‘Nah.  Don’t have to pay for anything here, Sherman.  Grab some sweets and see.’

Sherman went to a basket and took a handful of green and red confection.  They tasted better than anything he had eaten since childhood, exploding on his tongue with flavours he had, as an adult, come to consider long-dead throwbacks to his youth.

‘Good Lord, that takes me back…’ he said through revolutions of his jaw as the tough gelatinous candy was slowly masticated.  ‘I’ve not had sweets like this for at least twenty years!  You know, I can’t even remember what these are called.’  Inspecting the remaining shiny sugar-coated treats in his palm, he found that he could not remember ever having seen them before.  They were much like any other confectionary from his childhood, except that these were shaped differently.  It took a while to register, but Sherman realised at length that he was holding tiny letters of the Greek alphabet, or something which reminded him very much of it.

‘Where are we going, anyway?’ he asked.

‘Got to take you to the City Officials.  They’ll want to speak to you before we do anything else.’

‘And where are these Officials?’

The boy pointed to a blue spheroid mass of convex apertures and shadowed crenellations in the distance.  The apex of this construction was entirely lost in thick cumulus clouds, turning pink in the late afternoon sun.

‘See that building up yonder?  That’s where the Officials work.’

‘Oh right,’ Sherman followed the child’s finger, more as a gesture than through a need for direction.  The building was enormous, even by the standards of this giant’s city.  ‘And what do these Officials do all day?’

‘Dunno,’ replied the boy.  ‘It’s Official, innit?’

 

V

 

‘What’s really going on Dad?  I mean, why did Sherman attack you like that?’

Elizabeth was sat her parents’ living room.  Her mother was out on some errand or other, and this was the first time since the incident in her flat that she had had the opportunity to confront her father in private.

The huge television played out silently in one corner of the room.  Elizabeth had muted it to underline the gravity of her question.

‘What does any of that matter now, love?’

‘It matters a lot!  I’m lucky I’m not in jail right now, and you reckon it doesn’t matter?’

‘But you’re not in jail, are you?  And even if the worse came to the worse, I would’ve stopped anything like that from happening, Liz.  You know I put you and your mother before anything else in this world.’

A harsh December sun invaded the room.  Framed photographs of Elizabeth and Richard in their school uniforms deflected the vicious light, sending jagged razors of blinding light rebounding from the television screen.  Elizabeth stood up from the sofa and crossed her parents’ luxuriously deep, plush carpeting to draw the expensive curtains across the patio doors.  She turned to her father:

‘Why did you think Sherman killed Richard?’

‘Yes…I wondered when that was going to crop up.’

‘Are you surprised?’  She began twiddling with the hooped earring through her left lobe absentmindedly, for what seemed to Frank the thousandth time in the past half-hour.

‘I have it on good authority, love.  Trust me.  That boy you were with is not to be trusted.’

‘Richard?’

Sherman.’

‘Well, if that’s the best authority you could find to ask, then you really have messed up this time, dad.’

Frank looked up at his daughter from the pattern on his coffee mug.  It had been refilled so many times over the course of the day that its interior was scarred with dirty marks running in rings to the level of his beverage.

‘How so?’

‘The night Richard was killed was the night I met Sherman for the first time.’

 

VI

 

At length Sherman and his young companion reached the colossal blue building.

The entrance, although awesomely big, proved reachable only by an overly-convoluted, labyrinthine footpath which twitched and stuttered left, right, right again over and over until Sherman’s equilibrium declared him lost.

‘What is the point of making this place so impossible to get into?’ he asked the boy at his side.

‘Can’t have just anybody showing up and getting in the way, Sher.  There are a lot of busy people in there, doing Official Business.’

‘So Official that nobody knows what business it is, eh?’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Oh, nothing much.  It just strikes me that any Official Business as Top Secret as this appears to be is usually business that’s up to no good.  Ever hear of words like “dictatorship” or “autocracy?”  Or even “Totalitarianism?”’

The boy kicked Sherman viciously on his shin, causing the elder to hop and curse.

‘That’s for patronising me when I told you not to!’

‘Little swine!  Are there no decent borstals ‘round here for the likes of you?’

‘Oh, don’t be such a big girl’s blouse!  It was only a tickle.’

‘I’ll tickle you black and blue if you do that again!’

‘Yeah, yeah…anyway, we’re here.’

And they were.  Enormous double doors parted for them automatically and they entered the most elaborately sophisticated foyer Sherman had ever seen.

‘Jee-zuz…it’s certainly a cut above the DSS, anyway.’

The brilliantined reception area glowed with an austere elegance; gilt-edged motifs glorified the spotless pale-blue paintwork, twin escalators came and went throughout every floor in perpetual motion like messages up and down a giant central-nervous system.

A huge pine receptionists’ desk was itself dwarfed by an immaculately-embossed sign, cut by an apparent master of his craft.  The words on the sign read:

Infinity Gets You Nowhere

 

Sherman stood slack-jawed amid the bustle of precision-ironing, purposeful legs striding back and forth conveying torsos of set-square perfection.  He surmised that these superhuman individuals were setting about on Official Business.

The boy shouldered his way self-importantly towards the front of the desk.  This was staffed, garrison-like, with almost comically clean-cut twenty-somethings, exploding with an aspartamine friendliness and robotic efficiency.

‘Nixon.  Sherman.  Just arrived.’

A blonde man with picture-perfect skin tapped perfectly-manicured fingers on to an unseen keyboard.  Smiling constantly, he informed them that they were expected and to go straight to the Top Floor.

‘Ta, me duck,’ said the boy, grabbing Sherman again by the hand and leading him towards an oaken door at the far end of the ground floor.  This door, too, slid gracefully open at their approach, revealing a polished silver cross-chining.  This was opened for them by a bell-boy, dressed in blue with golden cravats and a hat so outmoded that Sherman forgot himself and laughed aloud.

‘How’s the leg, Sherman?’ the boy warned.

‘I’m sorry…I’ve never actually seen anybody dressed like this before.’

‘It is quite ostentatious, Sir.’ Volunteered the bell-boy.  Both he and the youngster shared a sympathetic look while Sherman cast his eyes around the elevator.  It was impossibly spacious, with two leather sofas at opposite ends and a drinks cabinet against the far wall.  Monet and El Greco timelessly decorated the wall-space above each sofa, and as they ascended imperceptibly the bell-boy busied himself with a cocktail shaker.

‘I think both of you gentlemen will appreciate today’s speciality, Sirs.’  He offered them both an elaborately ornate crystal glass of dark green liquid.  A parasol towered above each of these, along with every imaginable paraphernalia of barroom extravagance.

The boy and Sherman sipped at their drinks in synchronization, tasting the unknown contents with the affected air of connoisseurs.  Both smiled their appreciation.

‘Top-hole, Spottiswoode!’ exclaimed the boy.

‘Thank you, Sir.  Too kind, as always.’

The boy produced a straight-stemmed pipe from somewhere inside his tank-top, and Spottiswoode efficiently obliged him with a match.

‘What’s the big noise today, then, Spotty?’

‘Oh, nothing out of the ordinary, Sir.  Perkins is stirring a smell in Upper-Middle, but apart from that, it’s business-as-per, Sir.’

‘Perkins is an ass.  Always has been, always will be.’

‘Yes, Sir.’

The three of them continued to ascend, caught in a bubble of momentary silence in which the boy caught Sherman eying him with agitation.

‘Sorry, Sherman.  Spottiswoode, whack Nixon here a fag, will you?  I think he’s a bit light.’

‘Very good, Sir,’ said Spottiswoode, offering Sherman a silver cigarette case and a similarly-hued lighter.  ‘Please, sir.  Keep them.’ He insisted when Sherman offered them back.

The elevator doors opened, accompanied by a gentle chime.

‘Thank you, Spottiswoode,’ said the boy.

‘A pleasure, Sir.’

‘Ta,’ said Sherman.

‘Sir,’ acknowledged Spottiswoode.

VII

 

‘So, I take it we’re going to see the Big Cheese?’

They had reached a wooden door of tasteful understatement at the end of a long corridor.  The boy had knocked, politely but firmly, and they stood awaiting a response.

‘The Monumental Cheddar, yes.’

‘Come!’  A rich baritone voice called at length from within.

‘Try not to say anything too stupid.’  The boy opened the door and entered.  Sherman followed directly, unaware whether or not this was the right thing to do.

Behind a tiny desk sat an irregularly tall gentleman with a ludicrous handlebar moustache.  As they approached he was in conversation with somebody on the telephone.

‘Yes, well, tell him from me that he’s an absolute arse.  Yes.  Goodbye.’  He replaced the receiver and continued without pause, ‘ah, yes.  Sit, sit.’

The young boy motioned for Sherman to take a seat to the left of the desk, and then sat down himself.

‘So this is…’ the man behind the desk consulted a sheet of paper, ‘Nixon, yes?’

‘Correct, Sir.  Just come in today, he has.’

Ah-ha!  Catch of the day, is it?  Jolly good show.  Before we crack on, my boy, I don’t suppose you’ve caught wind of what that ape Perkins has been up to at all, have you?’

‘Only what Spottiswoode has just mentioned, Sir.’  The boy replied.

‘Old Spotty’s in on the picture too, eh?  Word must be fierce!’

‘It can be, sir, it can be.’

The tall man shuffled some papers upon his desk, apparently signifying the topic had been concluded to some degree of his satisfaction.  He then pulled open a drawer from his side of the desk and withdrew a bottle of Scotch.  ‘A snorter, gentlemen?’ he said as he arranged three crystal tumblers in a triangular formation upon the desktop.

‘Never say no, Sir, not if I can help it.’  The boy accepted his drink with a greedy lick of his upper-lip.

‘Now then, Nixon,’ the man continued after the drinks were portioned out.  ‘No doubt you’re full of questions.  Where you are, why you’re here, that sort of thing, yes?’

‘It’s not Heaven, is it?’ Sherman doubtfully volunteered.  Both the tall man and the young boy burst into fits of laughter.

‘Good grief, man!’  The moustache seemed to vibrate with the man’s shaking body.  He wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye and regained his composure.  ‘Oh my, you’re not telling me you go in for all that arse-toffee, are you?  No, no, no.  No such place, I’m afraid, Old Chap.  And if there were such a place, I can assure you that that place is not here.’

‘I told you, you weren’t dead, you silly little tit.’  The boy poked Sherman sharply in the ribcage.

‘Oh, and that reminds me; before I forget, I’ve a memo here for you.’

‘For me?’

‘Yes, Nixon, for you.  From that loathsome Davis.  It says…where did I put it now?’  The tall man searched his drawers and eventually pulled out another sheet of paper.  ‘Ah, yes, here we are.  Says could I let you know that we’re approaching the thirty-thousand-word mark, and could we please get a wriggle on.’

Sherman sat dumbstruck.  The man with the moustache waved the paper in front of him, waiting for a response.

‘I’m sorry, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.  Who’s Davis?’

‘Davis is the awful turd who’s in charge of your case, Nixon.’

‘Case?’

‘Heaven help us!  Cartwright, is the old boy tight, or just a moron?’

‘He is a bit slow on the uptake, I must admit, Sir.’

Sherman had heard enough.  He took to his feet and made towards the door.  ‘Sod this,’ he exclaimed as he reached for the door handle.  ‘You’re all out of your bloody minds.  I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here, but all you can do is insult me.  Good day, gentlemen.’

Sherman Nixon!  Sit down this instant and stop acting the goat!’  The tall man too stood up from his chair, and for the first time Sherman beheld how tall he really was.  At least seven feet of lanky bone boomed at him from across the desk.  ‘And you, Cartwright!  Stop jibing our guest!  Have you no decorum, man?’

‘Sorry, Sir.’  Cartwright again assumed the put-upon sulky air of a child.  His feet kicked back and forth a good five inches from the floor and his head sat upon his chest in dejection.

‘And by the by, don’t think you’ve shocked me by telling me that Just Henry here is actually my mate Harold.  It hardly took the sum of my wits to work that one out,’  Sherman told them as he again took to his seat.  ‘Tell me about this Davis,’ he said when he had composed himself.

‘I only met the man once, and that was a while ago.  Blind drunk, he was, raving about the unreality of perception or some such rot.  Not a man one would wish to be alone with for any great stretch at any rate.’

‘But what’s the connection between him and me?’

‘Connection?’

‘The connection, yes.  The relevance.  The shared singularity.  What the fuck has Davis got to do with me?’

‘Cartwright, you know how I feel about coarse language…’

‘Yes, Sir.  Sorry, Sir.’

‘Please don’t apologise on my behalf, Harold.’

‘Sorry, Nixon.’

‘And why are you a young boy now?  And what happened to your accent?’

‘Young Nixon’s got a point there, Cartwright.  It’s not Davis arsing up the narrative, is it?’

‘Couldn’t say, Sir.’

‘It smells like one of his brain-farts.  Man’s a plank, Cartwright.’

‘Yes, Sir.’

There followed a knock at the door.

‘Oh sod it, who’s this nowCOME!’  The tall man took the bottle of Scotch from the desk and slipped it hastily away back in the drawer.  The door opened timidly and a small, ugly man entered by a couple of feet.

‘Ah, Lautrec.  Is there a problem?’

‘Nah, mate.  Just seeing ‘ow fings are goin’ wiv these two gentlemen, Sir.’

‘I’m perfectly able to look after my own affairs, Lautrec, thank you,’ the man audibly underlined the “thank you.”

‘Fair enough, Sir.  If they gives you any ‘assle, give me a shout.’  The ugly man left the room, allowing the door to remain open a crack.

‘Was that Lautrec, as in “Toulouse”?’  Asked Sherman.

‘The same.’

‘Was he not supposed to be, well, French?’

‘Very perceptive, Nixon.  The bottom line around here is that things must be kept to a simple narrative, Davis’ incompetence notwithstanding.  Henri De Toulouse Lautrec was and is, as you have so intelligently mentioned, French.

‘However, the usage of French dialogue is viewed in the Editorial Department as a tad, how can I put this…pretentious is rather the most suitable word.  Not to mention old hat, of course.  In addition, with people of barely-entry-level abilities such as Davis, it proves a nightmare in the translation, so in order to keep things manageable, people from overseas who would otherwise use languages and dialects other than good old honest Queen’s are therefore required to, well, do so.’

‘But let me assure you, Nixon, that we run a tight vessel around here.  Very, very little is left to chance.  How long are you with us, by the way?’

‘I, er…’ Again, Sherman was lost.

‘Unclear at this point, Sir.’  Harold helpfully interjected.

‘Well then, I think we’ll leave it there for the day.  Cartwright can fill you in on anything I may have missed.  I will bid both of you gentlemen Good Day.’

With this Sherman and Harold took their leave of the tall man, who already had turned his attentions to other matters.  As Sherman was closing the door, however, he called out without looking up:

‘Oh, one more thing, Nixon.  The child was deceased long before you went anywhere near it.  It’s rather time to be pressing on with more important things, yes?’

 

VIII

 

‘Has that cleared a few things up?’ Harold asked as they returned to the elevator.  Spottiswoode obliged them with more cocktails and they sat upon the plush sofas, facing one another.

‘Absolutely nothing.  I still reckon I’m dead, but nobody’s got the backbone to tell me.’

‘For the last time, Sherman, you are not dead.  This is not the afterlife and I am certainly not you Guardian Angel, or whatever it is you think I am.’

‘But you’re dead, though?’

‘The Harold Cartwright you met on the train died in the same year that you were born.  The same day, in fact, and if I’m not wrong, you’ll find that a fraction of a second before you entered the world, Harold Cartwright breathed his last.  But, yes, I too am Harold Cartwright.  We are the one and the same.’

‘Now you’re just talking shite, to put it bluntly.  I know for a fact that Harold Cartwright was murdered in Whitby only last week.’  Sherman took a cigarette from the case which was given to him by Spottiswoode, and lit this with the silver lighter.  Through a cloud of smoke he concluded: ‘You’re all taking the piss, and it’s just not funny.’

‘Well, if that’s how you feel…’  Harold shifted his eyes to rest upon the carpet and puffed absent-mindedly upon his pipe.  The elevator doors parted with their plangent chime.  The young Harold thanked him and mutely escorted Sherman from the building.

The same sign which Sherman had read on his way in now read:

 

Infinity Gets You Everywhere.  Call Again Soon.

 

‘Look, I’m sorry if I was abrupt, Harry…’ said Sherman once they were outside the gigantic structure.  Night – or a reddish, sanguine version of what constituted the linear concept of “night” here, wherever this was – had settled and the pair strolled through The City, man and boy, leaving the unspoken ambiguity in the air of which of them assumed which role.

In what Sherman thought of as “the real world,” the night brought with it the salacious side of human nature, particularly in the sphere of existence in which he had spent most of his life.  Illicit drugs and sex, the desperate appetite for alcohol, the nihilistic attractions of crime; these were the things Sherman’s mind conjured up when he thought of the night.

Here, the crepuscular environment was without characteristic; night could only be defined by the absence of day, and nothing specific relied upon the evening to materialise.  The only difference, substantially, which Sherman could find was the red tint of the atmosphere, as if the place he had walked through prior to his engagement inside the vast blue building had, in his absence, been filtered through a red lense.

‘Ee, don’t fret wi’ it, lad.’  Harold recapitulated.  He had his pipe in his hand, and only now, outside the confines of that building, did the incongruity of this spectacle strike Sherman.

‘Your accent’s returned, then.’  Sherman looked down upon the unctuous head of the old youngster.  That word struck him, “unctuous,” for no reason he could place.  Surely the word had some relevance in the previous few weeks of his life?

‘Aye, it were about time I started talkin’ like me owd sen.  I thought you’d a noticed your Harold droppin’ ‘is accent before ‘e were murdered.’  Hearing the young Harold say this, Sherman thought back to the last few days of his acquaintance with the old man.  The other Harold had been speaking more and more without the strong Midlands inflection Sherman remembered from their first encounter.  At the time, he had failed to notice, much as one tends to when accustomed to a particular voice, but thinking back he thought it remarkable that he had not picked up on this.

But all of this was entirely dependent upon where he was; if he was dead despite what he had been repeatedly told, then none of this even mattered, surely?  Without a physical self there could be no linear explanation for any of this, and anything he did or said could have no tangible consequences.  Sherman pressed the boy again for answers.

‘Let me ask you a question first, Sher,’ the boy replied.  ‘What’s worse than Post-Modernism?’

‘I don’t Follow.’

‘Just answer the question.’

‘I don’t know, Harry.  Is it a joke?’

‘Nope.  I’ll tell you what’s worse than Post-Modernism, shall I?’

‘Go on then…’

‘A duck thinking it’s a man writing the biography of a duck.’

‘And that means…?’

‘The thing that’s worse than Post-Modernism can be used to define Post-Modernism.’

‘But what’s that got to do with any of this?’

‘Everything and nothing.’

‘Beautiful.  Just perfect.  In fact, just the answer I’ve been waiting for.’  Sherman rounded on Young Harold.  ‘You’re telling me I’m not dead.  Correct?’   The boy nodded.  ‘Then why the hell do I wish I was dead?  I’m having the weirdest, most difficult time of my life, none of it makes any sense whatever, and all you can do is talk in riddles.  I’m sick of it!’

‘Calm down, man!  If you’d listen, you’d understand that I’m trying to explain!’

‘Try harder!’

‘Right, okay…’ Harold thought for a moment.  ‘Right, put it this way: how many human beings would you say have there been on Earth over the course of history?’

‘No idea.  Start making sense!’  Sherman was shaking with rage.

‘Billions upon billions upon billions, right?  Now, after all those people having existed at one time or another, would you say that it’s possible to think or imagine something that’s not already been thought or imagined countless times before, by a countless amount of people?  Just try to stay calm and think about it.’

‘I don’t know, Harold, I really don’t…maybe it’s possible.  Why?’

‘Imagine if you had answered me categorically in the negative.  Now imagine that everyone on Earth felt exactly the same way.  It stands to reason that nobody would bother thinking anything at all, would you agree?’

‘I suppose so…’

‘Okay, then.  Now when a society ceases to think, what happens?’

‘I can’t say as I’ve ever thought about it, Harry to be honest.  Are you trying to tell me that I’m in somebody’s thoughts?’

‘Gawd strewth, Sherman.  Are you being thick on purpose just to wind me up?’

A look of consternation swept over the boy’s face, thick plumes of cyanine smoke puffed from above his bottom lip as he cast his preadolescent features across the metropolitan panorama.  Sherman discerned determination in the reddish penumbra of his nebulously-formed countenance.

‘Come on, Sher.  I’ll tek ya fer a drink.’

 

IX

 

‘It’s difficult to explain all of this properly.  What with you only having just got here, and probably never given such concepts as I’m talking about any real consideration before.  I could go on forever, and you still won’t understand half of it.  Even I only know the stuff I need to know, and I work here.’

They were seated at a highly polished table, deep within a recess of an ancient inn.  The cold slabs of crude brick underfoot were well-swept, and the fittings glinted with fastidious cleanliness, but the dust of ages still lingered among the yeasty smells in the air.

‘Weirdly enough,’ said Sherman, ‘just being in a place like this helps me to understand in a certain way.  I’ve never in my life been in this pub before, obviously, but I know it well; this is the pub that comes to my mind whenever I hear the word “pub.”  I know, say, that the big fella behind the bar,’ he indicated a broad-shouldered man of middle age pulling thick draughts from a wooden cask set upon the bar top.  ‘I know, for some reason, that he’s a widower, that his son went off years ago to find his fortune, and that there’s a knackered old dray horse out the back called Daisy who he hasn’t got the heart to get rid of.’

‘This is your ideal.  You imagined it, and so somewhere it had to exist.  It’s a testament to your refined aesthetics, to be fair.  If I had to think of a pub, I don’t think I’d create one as nice as this.’

‘Thank you.  That means a lot, coming from an old boy like you,’ Sherman deadpanned.

The both of them burst out into laughter; raucous laughter from Sherman, an excitable giggle from Harold.

‘Oh my,’ Harold at length said when the temporary light heartedness between them had again clouded over.  ‘Things are bad, Sherman.  Worse than they’ve ever been.’

‘How so?’

‘You know what I was saying about original thought?’  Sherman nodded.  ‘The worst-case scenario has already been set in motion.  Y’see, in answer to my own question, “what would happen to society if it ceased to think,” the results are self-evident.  It’s manifesting itself in language, first of all.’

‘What’s manifesting?  What was the answer to the question?’  Sherman was by now pleading the boy for illumination.

‘De-evolution, of course!  And among the first signs that a society is de-evolving is the disintegration of the language within that society.  Words cease to mean what once they did, slang becomes the norm, entire phrases enter the lexicon which don’t make any grammatical sense.’

‘So, you’re Head of Languages here, or something?’

‘No, Sherman!  No, no, no!  We’re trying to recreate original thought!’

‘But, how can you recreate that?’

The boy took a slow breath and sipped from a foaming tankard of treacle-thick beer.  ‘I suppose you have a point…okay, what we’re doing is reintroducing original thought.  Let me give you an example: have you ever been laid out in bed one night when, from out of nowhere, an idea so seemingly flawless makes you want to jump right out of that bed and write down every detail of it?’

‘Yeah, had that a couple of times.  Everyone has that, though, surely?’

‘It’s common enough, yes,’ the young Harold said modestly.

‘Oh right,’ Sherman continued, ‘you’re telling me that you put those ideas there, is that it?’

‘Put them there,’ there was no mistaking the plangent echo of pride in Harold’s voice now.  ‘Then took them away again.’

‘But why take these ideas away?’

‘Nobody’s perfect.  Administrational errors happen.  Sometimes, and I must stress the sometimes,  a thought occurs to someone who won’t act appropriately upon it.  If indeed they act at all.  Usually we’re on the money when it comes to who thinks what, but like I said, mistakes happen.

‘Most commonly, what happens is that an idea will occur to a person who lacks the wherewithal to convey this idea to others.  Becoming more and more common, of course, what with language in the sorry state of disrepair as it is.’

Sherman took a draught of his beer.  It tasted divine; smooth, balanced and fruity, without being too sweet nor too bitter.  He had to credit himself for imagining the pub to its closest paradigm of perfection possible.  ‘And language is the foundation of civilisation, yes?’

‘Now you’re getting it.  But as I’ve said, that’s only a small fraction of what goes on here.’  Harold was interrupted by the arrival of the landlord at their table, carrying two more tankards of the rich ale in his bear-like, hirsute hands.

‘These are on me, gentlemen,’ he told them in a thick Gloucestershire accent.  ‘I dunno how to describe it, but I felt in your debt for some reason.  Have I met either of you two gents before?’  His broad, booming basso profundo reverberated by way of the metal tankards, carried along the wooden table and tickled Sherman’s elbows, which he was using to prop up his chin.

‘Not to my knowledge, my good man, but these are very welcome, all the same.  My friend and I are now in your debt, sir!’  Harold took to his free drink with relish.   When the barman had retreated back to his duties, he continued.  ‘Gift horses and mouths, Sherman.  Gift horses and mouths.  That was no coincidence, by the way.  The free drinks, I mean.’

Sherman lit a cigarette and furrowed his brow.  ‘How’s that?’

‘It’s all to do with what I’ve been saying.  That feeling of being in our debt.  He doesn’t know it, but he owes his entire existence here to you.  That gratitude is a lingering perception of his very being.  Indirectly, you are his God.’

‘Get out of it!  You’re really pushing it now, Harry.’

‘Well how else would you put it?  You imagined your ideal of a pub; fixtures, fittings and, yes, population.  You thought everything inside these walls into being.  Without you thinking him, that great big lummox would not even be here.’

‘I don’t know…that can’t be right.  It just can’t.’

‘Alright, try this: what’s the man’s name?’

‘How should I know?’

‘Just think.  What would you say his name is?’

Sherman fixed his gaze upon the landlord, pottering behind his bar.  ‘Let me think…Lucian.  I reckon his name’s Lucian Blume.’

‘Right.  Hold that thought.’  Harold stood and caught the landlord’s eye, and the giant barkeeper came over once again.

‘Everything to your satisfaction, gents?’ he subserviently asked.

‘Wonderful, my man.  We just have a few questions for you, if you’ll indulge us?’

‘Well, I don’t know about no questions.  I’m not much of a man to go asking about this and that, and the bar’s all I’ve ever really known.  So, if you two gents are after some grand old revelations, I fear you may be setting yourselves up for a rare old disappointment.’

‘Oh, it’s nothing so much as that.  We were just wondering what your name might be.’

‘Now there I can answer you to a near-perfect degree of clarity, Sir!  My given name, and the one I’ve laboured under for all of my working and playing days is Blume.  Lucian Blume, Sir, if you please.’

‘Ah, Blume!  Good, solid name, that,’ said Harold as he shot Sherman a furtive, smug glance.  ‘My name’s Harold Cartwright, and this here is my good friend Sherman Nixon.’

‘A pleasure to make the acquaintances of such fine gentlemen, I’m sure.’  The innkeeper even stooped in a halfway attempt at bowing.  Sherman could only sit and marvel, hiding his amazement behind the frothing tankard against his lips.

‘The pleasure’s ours, Blume, all ours,’ Harold continued.  ‘Now, would I be right in supposing that you have a beloved old dray horse upon these premises?’

‘Aye, Sir!  My dear ol’ Daisy!  Been with me all of these fifteen long years and still as pretty a picture as ever she was!’

‘And a credit to you, I’m sure, good Sir!’  Sherman could see that Harold was enjoying himself.  That look in his eyes was unmistakable from that of the old man, dead but not dead.  ‘And your wife, I hear you’ve had hard times since her passing?’

‘Oh, yes Sir!  My heart has never once stopped in its grieving since the day I kissed her pale forehead and the Minister had her lowered into the cold soil.  But, ‘ere, ‘ow do you know so much about ol’ Lucian, when you say you ain’t never made my acquaintance afore today?’

‘I merely hear things, from this source and another, on my travels.’

‘Now, Sir, I never thought of myself as being the talk of the town.  Very few folk take much notice of me, in all earnest, asides from when they want my good ale.’

‘Again, an absolute credit to you and your profession, Landlord.  Heaven’s Nectar indeed, Sir!  And let me assure you while I’m about it that your name is golden for miles around.  Why, barely can my friend and I go a day without hearing of Good, Honest Lucian and his supremely quaffable ales!’

‘Oh, Sir, you do embarrass!’

Sherman started chuckling to himself.  ‘And he saw that it was good,’ he muttered to himself between his private laughter.

‘Begging your pardon, Sir, but what’s so funny?’  Lucian Blume wore the half-smile of one who is waiting for the punchline before committing himself to outright laughter.

‘Nothing much, mate.  Just that Harold here was only just saying how I’m your God, and…’

Sherman was still laughing when the hulking landlord picked him up by his neck.  So quick had been the enormous man’s response to that statement that it left no time for Sherman’s physical expression to catch up with the change in the atmosphere.

The Goliath had him over his shoulder; Harold sipped his beer and wore a mother’s face, a mother whose two boys were tussling again over trivial boys’ concerns.  He deftly shuffled himself along the leathern seating seconds before Sherman landed beside him, legs in the air and head dangling drunkenly towards the stone floor.

Lucian clearly was not finished with him.  The gentle giant had metamorphosed into the primal beast of myth, rage and outrage egging his tantrum on inside his head, louder their disembodied screams between those ears, pushing him towards his cataclysmic crescendo.

You’d both better pay for the beer you’ve supped here this day.  Pay right now, and away with the pair of ya!’

‘You heard him, Sherman!’ Harold was still draining his tankard as Sherman urged him through the door.  ‘Pay the man!’

But Sherman had bolted, and young Harold had little choice but to follow hard on his heels, laughter spread upon those innocent features.  ‘Wait up, Sherman!  I don’t think he’ll follow us this far!’

Sherman had come to rest halfway down a secluded country lane, an incongruous fifty yards from the metropolitan epicentre.  Gasping and clutching at his chest, he forced the breath back into his lungs as Harold ambled up to him, still tickled by the sheer spectacle of this most entertaining Roman Holiday.

‘Sherman Nixon, you should know better!’

‘What did I do?’  The wheezed words alternated between urgent inhalations.  ‘He just went insane!’

‘I know all this is new terrain to you, Sher, but you of all people should know not to talk about any of those three things in a public house.’

‘What three things?’

‘Politics, war…and religion!’

 

X

 

‘It could’ve been worse, lad.’  They were strolling amongst the lurid neon of The City, Harold leaving a thick cobalt trail of reeking smoke in his wake as he leisurely puffed away on his pipe.  ‘If he’d have killed you, he would’ve been guilty of deicide.  And I’m not sure what you get for that these days.  Life, I imagine, if you’re lucky.’

Sherman was still not quite far enough from the event to appreciate the levity in his friend’s tone.  In truth, he still reeled from the shock; not of the violence in itself, but rather the suddenness of Lucian Blume’s change in temper.

‘It’s not really a laughing matter, though, Harry.  I’ve never seen anybody snap so quickly.’

‘That’s because you told the truth, Sherman.’  Harold stopped to look at him.  ‘You told the truth, and deep down, Blume knew it was the truth, just like he knew there was something about us he couldn’t place from the moment we walked in.  To be fair, I doubt whether the big fella reckoned on the metaphysical hot potato that he had only just, the second you strolled in, popped into existence, but all the same…he knew something was up.

‘Folk react badly when they realise fundamental truths, Sherman.  Well, some folk do, at any rate.  How’s your neck?’

Sherman rubbed at his rouged-raw throat.  ‘Not too bad, but my back’s aching something rotten.  Bloody great hulk, damn his balls.’   They were stood outside what looked to be a venue of some kind, although a venue for what Sherman could not begin to guess.  A pink and blue electric sign above its double doors buzzed and pulsated, flickering letters on and off.  When all the letters lit up together, Sherman read that the venue was named “Nu Zen Palace.”

‘Strange name for a club, that.’  He mused aloud.

‘Wordplay, like most names around here.  It’s an anagram, if you can work it out.’

‘Anagram, is it?  What’s the point of that, then?’

‘No point, but what with the surfeit of words we deal with every day, it gives us a way to put them to good use.  Sort of.’

‘But, surely words are never in ample or short supply.  Words are just words, and whether you use them around the clock or never at all, they’re still words, are they not?  What I mean to say is, if you read aloud the dictionary, it wouldn’t be a case of you using up words, would it?’

‘No, but just because words have infinite use, doesn’t mean that they won’t lose their leaning after a while.  Or, more likely, take on lots of other meanings.’

‘You’re talking about slang again, aren’t you?’  Sherman reached behind him to the small of his back, which he attempted to massage.  The look of pain creasing his expression rewarded him with no sympathy from Harold.  Rather, amusement spread once more upon his friend’s face.

‘He really gave you what for, didn’t he, youth?  And yes, I’m talking about slang, but more than that.  I’m talking about abuse.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Shut up and listen.  Words are subject to abuse just as everything else is, but when a word is treated improperly it leaves an echo.  This echo then gets picked up by another person, who then uses that word, thinking that the abused version of that word, i.e. the incorrect definition, is in fact the proper usage.

Then from this bastardization one can reason that a further slang will in time happen.  So now you’ve got the slang of a slang, and the original, that is to say, proper meaning of the word is in danger of being lost forever.

But the real danger of this, and, trust me, it does happen, is the potential for someone or lots of someones to be completely oblivious to this slang-slang nonsense.  These hypothetical persons might even be people of importance with power over world events.  Now, say a situation arises whereby a word is needed, a word which has in fact been bastardized beyond recognition, and the future of an entire society depends upon the successful use of this word.

They use the word.

It no longer means the same thing as before.

The addressee of this word has long since forgotten its original meaning, and by some strange fluke it’s been slanged so hard it’s gone round the other way and means the direct opposite.’

Sherman felt the dawn stretch languorously over his features.  ‘War?’

Harold nodded.  ‘War, genocide, atrocity…extinction.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

I

 

The thick-steamed, sweet scented bathroom represented far more than mere cleanliness to Elizabeth; this small retreat, stocked to bursting with the scents of unpronounceable flora and sweet vanillas, crème brulees and banana toffees was for her an oleaginous Ompholos, every unguent, embrocation and exfolient; each talcum, scrub and wax a potted soldier in her army set for war.  This war she had been fighting for longer than Elizabeth cared to  remember: the war against latent spinsterhood.

Today, however, her bathtub represented something with a more immediate significance.  As she slipped into the all-but scalding water, Elizabeth felt as though she were entering her own baptismal font.  Scrubbing away at herself to an almost subcutaneous level, she painfully subjected her young body to the ordeal of absolution, telling herself that each bath stood for another layer of guilt happily removed.

If she were to give in to introspection, no doubt Elizabeth would find the stoical strength to ratiocinate against this neurotic behaviour; logically, there was no way that this method could work, and even if miracles happened and she did manage to remove all trace of culpability, where was the evidence to suggest that she were in fact responsible?  Yes, it had been she who had plunged the knife in Sherman Nixon’s back, and yes again, she had willingly gone along with her father in lying to the police.  But had she not done this in protection of her father?   And if these were indeed the waters of absolution, why would even the most pious of believers ask her to be absolved of that Theological Prime Directive: Honour Thy Father?

Elizabeth found that she was contemplating matters she never would have begun to understand before.  It was as though, nasty though the encounter had been, her attack on Sherman (she still could not bring herself to think about the possibility of that word murder) had awakened some dormant metaphysical knowledge within herself.  For all of her years she had lived in total abnegation of all things religious, spiritual and philosophical, and yet here she was, both literally and metaphorically neck-deep in her own sin.

Sin.  How could she even contemplate such a term if not for the belief, buried somewhere inside of her, that mortal transgressions might carry immortal retributions?

Her contemplation was interrupted by the fog-muted report of knuckles at her front door.  Always the way, she thought to herself as she reached for a fluffy pink towel on the floor.  If they’re gonna call, they’ll call when I’m in the bath.

The caller had lost all patience, however; a stiff crack of wood told her the front door was being forced open.  In her panic, Elizabeth vacillate between discovering who it was, or finding some kind of barricade for the bathroom door.  She froze.

The door flew open violently.  It was Richard.

Before she could demand an explanation he had his hand over her mouth.

Shortly after, Elizabeth lost consciousness.

 

II

 

‘That’s all well and good, Harry, but…Nu Zen Palace?’

‘A bit of whimsy, Sherman.  It’s an anagram of Paul Cezanne.’

‘What’s he got to do with anything?’

‘Like I said.  Whimsy.’

The doors of the venue exploded to an outpouring of well-dressed people.  They were chattering manically amongst themselves, without discrimination, for there were no separate factions of conversation; scores of evening dresses and tuxedos alike engaged furiously in one giant conversation, as though the crowd as a whole consisted of one party.

The noise of their mingled voices was near-deafening, but for all that Sherman could not discern a single word.  Without looking, the crowd dispersed around Sherman and Harold, without breaking their discussion, buzzing unintelligibly as the static pair watched and regrouped once they had been passed.

‘He runs this place, believe it or not.’

‘Who?  Cezanne?’

‘Yep.  One version of him does, yes.’

Synapses sprang into duty inside Sherman’s skull.  ‘Hang on a sec…’ he began, then lost himself in the labyrinthine conundra of his own epiphany.  ‘”The Unctuous, Eerie Dollar.”  That was a headline on the newspaper you were reading – Harold was reading – on the train.  That’s an anagram, too, isn’t it?’

‘An anagram of?’  The boy Harold evacuated another fetid miasma of smoke in Sherman’s direction.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec!’  In his self-satisfaction, the street reverberated with Sherman’s proud cachinnation.

‘Oh…so it is.’  The boy’s nonchalance was nothing other, as far as Sherman could tell, than the over-acted pretence of the disinterested.

‘What’s the crack, Harold?’

‘Don’t know what you mean, Sher.’

‘Yes, you do.  Lautrec was in the big man’s office not long ago, cockney as barrow-boy.  You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence.’

‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’  Harold threw a panning glance up the street, and then back along the opposite direction.  Then he tilted his small head and sought skywards for something Sherman knew not what.  By degrees the boy had looked less and less the childish scamp he had met on the beach; as if his accelerated adolescence had occurred in spasm before Sherman’s eyes.  He followed the boy’s gaze towards the heavens, and saw for the first time the brilliant cornucopia of serried galaxies therein.  Sherman had never before seen such a fantastic stellar display, these supernal sequins glittered in formations entirely alien to him.

Finally, the boy spoke.  ‘Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901, and yet here he is.  Why is that, Sherman?’

‘I was rather hoping that you could tell me.’

‘Okay, okay.  Well, to quote Chateaubriand, “Man has not one and the same life.  He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.”  We’re all snowballs, Sherman.  Humans just keep going, from one life to the next.’

‘Bollocks.  Load of old religious claptrap pretending to be existentialism.  Pull the other one, old man!’

‘No, really.  How else can you have known your Harold if he died at precisely the same time as you were born?’

‘Oh, so what, now you’re telling me…’

‘Yes?…’

‘What are you telling me, Harry?’

‘I’m telling you that Harold Cartwright is you!’

 

III

 

When Elizabeth awoke she found that she was entirely dry, and no longer in her bathroom.  Several moments elapsed before she could tell herself with any degree of certainty that she was lying in her bed; the curtains were drawn, and the pitch black void of her room dictated that it was sometime in the evening.

She was cold.  Colder than the frost of December outside, colder than any Winter that had ever acted as the festive backdrop for Yuletide excitement in all of her life.  The long winter months for her did not represent cold.  No, from September all through to the spring, Elizabeth knew nothing but the assumed warmth of constant central heating and good-quality woollens.  More than this, though, her lifetime had never not known the radiance of familial affection.

Elizabeth was also naked, although aside from the atavistic need for warmth, this gave her no cause for concern.  Her nudity was part and parcel of her time spent in the flat, when on those rare occasions she did not live with her parents, she hardly ever wore but the most negligible of clothing at home.

Her breathing was the only sound, for now, that she could make out, but her inhalations sounded with an aural spectral trail, like the ghosting traces of an hallucination transferred to another sense.  Moreover, each exhalation echoed to a similar effect.  Elizabeth floated in the blackness, out of her chronological perceptions, listening to the strangeness of her respiration until she realised that there was a second person in the room with her.

She held her breath.  The other breathing continued, yet gave her no indication as to its origin; there was no clue in the sound to tell her whether the breather was male or female, and the blank black-wash of her bedroom conspired to prevent her from pinpointing whereabouts in the room this unknown person was.

In her cold, shivering fear, she lay uncertain in the sinister limbo of what would come next: if she remained silent, would her intruder reveal him or herself?  Yet, if she herself broke the silence, was she in fact prepared for the knowledge of their identity?

These two eventualities, both as laden with dark possibility as the other, revolved in her brain.  As tense as the black uncertainty was, it represented, for the time being a safety of sorts.  The undefined wall between them was in itself a bulwark from the inevitable moment when the truth was revealed, that irreversible point from which there would be no coming back for to know the stranger’s identity was to ascertain her fate.

As the interminable minutes rolled into one another, Elizabeth began to remember the incident in the bathroom.  Before this had occurred to her, her passage from the tub to her bed was an erased patch of nothingness.  For a few seconds she even doubted the reality of her ablutions, and it was only when she inhaled the sweet fruit scent of her hair, and vague hints of vanilla from her upper torso that she could with certainty count her bathing as something solid which had happened to her and did feature in her history.

But no sooner had she taken comfort in this fact, than she arrived at the possibility that she was now in the unreality.  Was she, in fact, laid in her bed, bone-dry, with the phantom susurration in the corner, or was this the unreality?  Mercifully, these musings too did not last, for before she could pursue her train of thought, the memory of Richard’s face at the bathroom door returned to her.

The face gained substance, gradually.  The colours of his young face began slowly to flesh out; his eyes illuminated their pale blue, thin, the blonde-ish hair became more than a mere splash of colour until assuming its true piliform matter.  Eventually, the image was sufficiently vivid for Elizabeth to extract the face from her mind and paste it upon the shadow-figure, still unseen, in her room.

‘Richard?’  She used the tentative question as a means of exploration.  Either the young man would respond, or he would not, but the important thing to her right now was her voice.  She had shattered the glassy barrier between them.  ‘What’s going on?’

For a while, it seemed as though he would not answer her.  Then, with the croaking strains of a patient recovering from a tracheotomy creaked an ambivalent ‘nothing.’  Elizabeth found no inflection in Richard’s voice to tell her why he could be here, or why she was prostrate over the top sheet of her bed.  This second block of silence scared her more than the first.

An engine sounded outside her window, followed by a lazy light-amber flash of headlights strafing her bedroom.  In that fraction of a second as the car cast its accidental enfilade across the far wall she saw him sat in the corner of the room.  The vacant reflection of Richard’s eyes was more than Elizabeth could stand, and she began to sob pitifully, which in turn formed a species of embarrassment.  Nobody should ever see her in this situation, particularly not her boyfriend.  At length her chagrin evolved into rage; rage at herself firstly, a twisted-up self-pitying fury at her own helplessness, then flaring up in distension to encompass each of those incidental elements of her life which had brought her unwittingly towards this moment.

She tried to bring her arms together, but found that this was impossible; her wrists burned as they struggled to pull free of the binds she felt yet could not see.  They were thick and strong enough to be of course rope, and yet the stinging in her arms felt to her more the product of a knife-edge.

Another thing, the wetness.  For the first time, Elizabeth felt the viscid puddle between her thighs and immediately imagined that she was bleeding.  However, the registering of this wet sensation was followed by the unmistakeable, cloying musk of masculinity.  He had had her.

 

IV

 

Sherman Nixon left the crimson twilight on the street as he followed the juvenile throwback of Harold Cartwright into the cryptically-nomenclatured venue.  Its plush, velveteen interior screamed Art Deco, and yet there seemed no character or temperament as they made their way through the deserted lobby.

‘What precisely is this place supposed to be?’ he asked his friend.

‘Whatever you want, Sher.  But right now, at this moment in time, we need for it to be a cinema.’

‘How come?’

‘Because we need to watch a film, silly-arse.’  The boy had reached the pick ‘n’ mix, and was in the process of cramming a huge paper bag with job-lots of confectionary.  Jelly beans, bears and babies joined chocolate mice, raisins and toffees to mingle colourfully with cola bottles, sherbets and flying saucers.  ‘Fill yer boots, Sherman.’

Of all the scents of his childhood, the rich toasted butter aroma of popcorn was always guaranteed to send Sherman hurtling back in time.  Going to the cinema was the most cherished treat of his boyhood years, so precious it only ever occurred, at the most, four times a year.

There is something about picture houses that never quite translates properly to adulthood; the thrill of the event is lost when one reaches adolescence, and it is also around this period when the human mind becomes more critical of the fantastic, in tandem with the reality of the world settling in on the young mind.  But that naive fascination of the film-going experience begins well before the opening credits roll, and the cinema foyer plays a role in childhood wonder that can never be underestimated, or forgotten.

So it was with a zeal equal to both the young boy here with him, and the younger boy who he had all but abandoned to the past, that Sherman took a multi-coloured paper bag from the rack and began to take his fill of the sweets.  Neither he nor Harold bothered with a scoop; their eager hands pulled mound after mound of confectionary from their dispensers and, by the time they were finished, had packed six bags between them, each one spilling over with every colour, shape and flavour of candy available.

‘Right then,’ said Harold as they bounced towards the end of the lobby, struggling to keep their respective bags from overflowing onto the bright red carpeting.  ‘Let’s see this film, my boy!’

‘Let’s do that very thing.  What are we actually going to see?’

The Strange Days of Sherman Nixon: The Director’s Cut!’

 

V

 

As they had the entire auditorium to themselves, they felt no compulsion to stay silent as the house lights dimmed and the projected screen popped and whirred into life.

‘I don’t think it’s possible to shock or surprise me any more, Harry.  In the space of ten minutes you’ve told me that I’m Harold Cartwright, never mind the fact that I saw Harold Cartwright murdered last week, plus your insistence that you’re Harold Cartwright to boot, and then you go and tell me that there’s a film made about me.’

‘I know it must be quite a lot to take in…’

‘Not a bit of it.  Oh, I nearly forgot.  I’m God, too, aren’t I?’

‘Do I detect a tone, Sherman?’

‘Oh, I do hope so.  Really I do.  So, is this film, by your reasoning, about Sherman Nixon, or Harold Cartwright?  Given that I’m both of those people and the supreme creator of the universe all in one?  And while we’re at it, will Toulouse-Lautrec be joining us this evening, or is he out on the town tonight with Cezanne?’

The boy threw a handful of hard-boiled sweets at Sherman in retort.  ‘After all you’ve seen with your own eyes, heard with your own ears…after everything I’ve proven to you, you’re still a cynical toad, Nixon!’

‘You’ve proven nothing!  There is not a single thing here that proves to me beyond the shadow of doubt that I’m not tucked up in bed at home.  Or, I probably am dead and you’re in on the big joke of keeping me in the dark, so to speak.!’

‘Oh please, please, please let’s not go down that road again!’  Young Harold put his head in his hands, spilling half a bag’s contents onto the floor in the process.  ‘Bloody Hell, Sherman!  Now you’ve made me drop me sweets!’

‘You were lobbing your sodding sweets at me wholesale a minute ago!  Anyway, when are you going to start telling me precisely what’s happening, without talking in riddles and going ‘round the houses?’

‘With any luck, I won’t have to.’  The boy pointed towards the giant screen.  ‘Film’s just starting.’

There were no opening credits.  Only the revolving image of a child wearing red dungarees stood on a playing field showed any sign that the film had started at all.  Although he had no memory of the event, there was no doubt in Sherman’s mind that the child was himself.

‘Quite a bonnie little thing, weren’t you Sher?’ Harold teased with a mouth full of sweets.

The child on the screen broke into a run – the kind of flapping, flailing canter that toddlers run when excited.  He ran until the camera was no longer on him, until the soft focus of the lense was forced to sharpen into middle distance, where  a man stood amongst the trees.

Sherman concentrated on the man; he was advanced in years, and seemed to be lost.  There was no mistaking this figure as any other than Harold Cartwright, the Harold Cartwright who had befriended Sherman on the train to Whitby, and who had died less than a week after that.

‘I don’t get it.  Why was Harold there?  I thought you said that he – you- whoever died the same day I was born?’

‘Just because he’s stood in front of you doesn’t mean he isn’t dead.’

As the image of Harold on the screen faded, so it was replaced by that of Sherman as an adult.  He was scrabbling in the dark, visibly freezing under his inadequate clothing.  Sherman watched himself and knew what was going to happen.  Sherman on the screen crouched among the hedgerow and the camera zoomed in to reveal a bundle of rags in Sherman’s arms.

‘Christ.  That’s when I found the baby.’

But after this moment history differed from what was shown on the screen.  Harold’s noisy mastication provided the only soundtrack as Sherman watched the baby come to life, premature and malformed as it was, while he himself, overcome with the cold, dropped to his knees and flopped forward onto the frosted earth.

 

VI

 

Elizabeth struggled.  She struggled upon the bed, and she struggled to feel the anger of invasion.  She should have felt outraged, should have been screaming the flat down with indignation, but the truth was she was too petrified to feel anything.  Nothing could usurp the surging urgency within her to be free of her bonds.  Some innate knowledge inside told her that her life depended upon getting out of her room, out of the flat, and as far away from her boyfriend as was humanly possible.

‘He thinks he can just get rid of me, easy as that.’  That disembodied voice croaked once more into action from its corner of the room.  ‘As if he can use me as he sees fit, then just tell me to piss off.  Me!’  The voice was the only sound; no movement could be heard.  Even Richard’s breathing was muted.

‘What’s happened, Rich?’  Gently, tonelessly.  Soothe his nerves, calm whatever storm there was brewing inside of him, and when he’s thought everything through, he’ll come ‘round and set me free.  Even as she told herself this, Elizabeth found that she did want to know what had upset him, and not just for the sake of getting herself out of the situation she was in.  He was handling this all wrong, that much was beyond doubt, but that did not necessarily mean that he had no sufficient reason to react badly.

But before anything else, she had to be released from the bed.

‘We can talk about it, if you like.  Just untie me and we’ll talk it over.’

‘This isn’t about us.  It’s about me and him.’

‘Who’s “him”?’

‘Frank.’

‘Dad?  What’s he done, Richard?’

‘My name’s not Richard, you stupid bitch!  My name’s Alex!  Got that?’

‘Alex…’ she rolled the name around her tongue.  Yes, that was more an appropriate name for her lover.  The slight, incidental glottal of the “L” as her tongue flicked the roof of her mouth was pleasing.  “Richard” had always been too smooth-sounding for her, not to mention the domain of her dead sibling.  Even when her Richard were alive, she had always found that the fricative “ch” grated upon her sensibilities.

Elizabeth found that she was not overly put out by the deception; after the indignation of her father’s interference in this relationship, to change her boyfriend’s name at this late stage was nothing.

The blank space where Alex (she no longer thought of him as “Richard”;  It had been an automatic transition, and one she scarcely noticed) should have been susurrated with the crisp, leathern sound of new training shoes and crinkled polyester.  A green glow dimly illuminated the lower half of his face, reminding her of plastic Halloween witchcraft as Alex flicked through the contents of his mobile phone.

‘I filmed us.  Just to show him.  Little poison dwarf’ll see he can’t play games with me when he sees this bastard.’

‘Filmed us how?’  Even as the question left her mouth, Elizabeth subconsciously made the connection between the statement and the stale seminal stench between her legs.  ‘Oh God!  You’re not showing that to my dad!  Please tell me you’re not!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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