Authors: Elizabeth Haynes
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Contemporary Women
At that point I thought about going back to my kitchen and phoning the police. Looking back, that was exactly what I should have done. But it was Friday night, and because I worked at the police station I knew that all the patrols would be busy, if not mopping the blood and puke off the streets of Briarstone town centre, then back at the station booking people into custody. I’d worked with the police for years and never once had to call them out myself. I didn’t even know what to say. That there was a bad smell next door? They’d more than likely suggest phoning the council on Monday morning.
The low metal gate to the back garden hung off its hinges; beyond it the remains of what had once been a neat patch was now an untouched wilderness. The grass and weeds were waist-high in places, having outgrown their own strength and flopped over on themselves like an army midway through a battle. I stepped over the grass on to the brick path that led to the back door. The kitchen windowsill was covered in dead flies. I shone the torch into the empty room. A few flies were still crawling on the glass of the window and still fewer followed an angular flight path around the centre of the room. The door to the dining room was ajar and the light glowed through, a dim golden light from somewhere inside.
I looked down. The lower pane of the back door was missing. Dark smears marked the bottom of it, tufts of cat hair around the edge as though cats of various colours and breeds had all been in and out as many times as had taken their fancy. I tried the door. Too much to hope that it would be unlocked, of course. Then I knocked on it, the sound of my knuckles rapping on the glass, which rattled in the frame. I pushed the pane gently, and then a little harder, and before I knew what had happened the glass had fallen in and smashed into pieces on the tiled floor of the kitchen inside.
‘Oh, shit!’ I said aloud. I was really in trouble now.
I should have turned away from the door. I should have gone back into my own house, and locked my door, and thought no more about it. It wasn’t my problem, was it? But, having practically broken into the house already, I thought I might as well finish what I’d started, and see if anyone was inside.
I put my hand through the empty frame and reached around to the inside. The key was in the lock. I struggled to turn it – it was stiff, hadn’t been opened in a long time – and at the back of my mind was the thought that there were probably bolts at the bottom and top of the door as well. But when I twisted the key in the lock it eventually turned, and the door opened easily enough. The smell from within was powerful, and sudden. And then it faded just as quickly, as if all the badness from inside had escaped and fled into the night.
‘Hello?’ I called, not expecting a reply and not knowing what the hell I would have done had one come. ‘Is anyone there?’
The house felt warmer than mine, or perhaps that was just because I was coming inside from the cold of the garden. My footsteps crunched on the broken glass, echoed in the empty kitchen and I put a hand over my mouth and nose to try to muffle the smell, which was stronger again in here. I shone the torch around the room, illuminating cupboards and shelves and a cooker, which were dirty, the surfaces dulled with a sticky film of dust.
Maybe it was just food that had gone bad, I thought. Maybe whoever had lived here had departed in a hurry and left the remains of their dinner behind. But the fridge door stood open and it was unlit, nothing but black mould inside. It was obviously unplugged.
I pushed the kitchen door open slightly and then there was enough light for me to turn off the torch. I was in a dining room, the table and chairs in place, a tablecloth covering the table and two placemats upon it. A table lamp sat on a sideboard, a modern design but, like everything else, with a thin film of dust blurring its surface. It was lit.
I could hear a sound. Low voices, but a bit tinny – it sounded like Radio 4. The radio was on? Surely, then, someone was in here? I felt as though I was being watched, as though someone just out of my line of sight was waiting.
I told myself not to be so paranoid, and went into the hallway. It looked lived-in, the house – carpet on the floor and pictures on the walls. The only light came from the table lamp in the dining room.
‘Hello?’ My voice was quieter in here, my footfalls on the carpet muffled. The smell wasn’t as bad, or was it just that I was getting used to it, growing accustomed to breathing through my mouth?
The radio was louder now, the sound of an interview between a male voice and a female, the woman arguing a point and the man placating her. Above that another noise, or was I imagining things now?
I felt something against my leg and jumped, a squeak of panic coming out of my mouth before I could stop it. But it was only the cat, winding herself around my ankles once before dashing off through the dining room door and into the next room. ‘Lucy!’ I said, urgently, not wanting to have to crawl behind someone’s sofa to try and coax her out again. I pushed open the door to the living room at the front of the house. It was dark in here, the light from the dining room not penetrating this far into the gloom. The curtains were closed, the gap between them letting in only the faintest glow from the street-lights outside. I turned on the torch again and as I did so I caught a movement, a flash of white. It was Lucy again, rolling on the carpet in the middle of the room. I could hear her purring above the thudding of my heart.
The room was furnished, but sparsely: a sofa, a low coffee table in front of it. On the table, a bunch of what must have once been carnations, stiff and brown in a waterless vase.
The beam of the torch passed over an armchair. And even having felt a presence, half-expecting to find somebody in here, in this room, I gasped at the shock of seeing a person there, one horrifically distorted out of shape: black instead of white, the skin of the face stretched and split in places, the eyelids drawn back into a wide, black, hollow stare and the belly blown up like a balloon, stretching the fabric of what it was wearing – what
was wearing, for it was a skirt, and the hair that still clung to the skull was long, fine, lank, and maybe still fair in places, although it was coated in something – grease, some substance. And what made it worse was that there was movement in the abdomen, as though she was breathing – although surely this wasn’t possible? But when I looked closer I realised that her stomach was composed of a swarming, churning mass of maggots… And despite the horror, and my deep, heaving, choking breaths, I could not tear my eyes away. One hand was resting on the arm of the chair, and the other hand, the forearm from the elbow to the hand, was
on the floor
beside the chair, as though she’d dropped it, knocked it off the edge like a misplaced remote control.
And then the purring began again – the bloody cat – and I looked down to see her rolling on the carpet beside the dark mess, as if the smell was catnip to her, and not the stench of the putrefying bodily fluids of a decomposing corpse.
I was eating cornflakes and reading jokes aloud from the back of the 1982
annual when my father clutched his chest and dropped dead on the kitchen floor.
Looking back it almost seems comical, but I believe that this was the moment when my life took a change in direction. My father was the sort of person you could read jokes to. He would spend Sundays fixing the car and I would help him, learning where all the pieces went and what they all did. He laughed a lot and together we both laughed at my mother, who was thin, and serious, and bitter.
After he died, I couldn’t bring myself to read the
any more. I didn’t really laugh any more, either.
It’s grim, feeling like this on a Monday morning. Other people have hangovers, people my age; or they’ve spent the weekend caravanning, or shagging their girlfriends. Or shagging someone else’s girlfriend. I’ve spent my weekend writing an essay, and staying up too late with whisky and porn. As a result I’m finding it impossible to concentrate on the budgets.
The trouble is that I’m not sure I even want a girlfriend any more. I like my life the way it is, carefully ordered. I like my house the way it is. I’m not pathetically tidy – no visiting psychologist would have concerns for my sanity – but I think I would find it annoying to have to accommodate someone else’s things. Clothes finding their way into my wardrobe. Books on to my bookshelf. Food into my fridge. No, I don’t want that. I don’t have room in my house. And I don’t suppose I have room in my head, either.
Still, sex would be nice.
Garth has once again failed to bathe this weekend. He’s on the far side of the office yet I still catch a sniff of him every so often. As hard as I try to concentrate on happier things, I can’t help breathing in his direction, experimentally tasting the air again and again, incredulous that such a scent could possibly come from a normal, gainfully employed adult. He picks food out of his teeth, accompanying this with a sucking noise, and while this nauseates me I find myself glancing across at him, watching him rooting around the back of his molars with a probing finger and wondering what he’s eaten that could possibly become that stuck. He has ink on his fingers, too, like a schoolboy, and, whilst I loathe the man, whilst every second in his presence is a form of torture to my senses, I have this dreadful fascination with him – an unquenchable curiosity about how someone so repellent can subsist in the modern world.
Martha saunters in late. New shoes, I notice – the third pair this month by my reckoning.
‘Morning, Colin – good weekend?’
She doesn’t really want to know, of course. It took me a while to work out that the question is rhetorical, a ritual for a Monday morning. The first few times she asked, I told her at great length what I’d done over the weekend, carefully editing the details that even I knew were not appropriate to share with a colleague. She looked vacant after a few minutes. She stopped asking, after that, and only recently – I believe when someone else asked me the same thing within earshot and got a brief response – did she recommence with the Monday ritual.
‘Fine, thank you. And you?’ It had certainly been eventful, especially Friday evening, but of course I wasn’t about to supply her with the details.
On occasion I heard her telling one of the others all about her weekend – kite-flying or baking or hiking or going to a fête or watching football or visiting her cousin or landscaping the garden – but her reply to me was invariably the same.
‘It was good, thanks.’
Vaughn sends me an email asking if I want to go to the Red Lion at lunchtime. I’m tempted to ask if he wants to go now; I doubt things are going to suddenly get more exciting here in the next three hours. It’s sad that the thought of half an hour in a dark, mouldy pub next to the gasworks with Vaughn Bradstock is so cheering.
When I get to the Red Lion, twenty minutes early, not even noon, Vaughn is already there at our usual corner table, with a pint of John Smith’s waiting for me. Vaughn and I worked together, many years ago. He used to be a contractor in the IT department at the council, and for some reason we developed a friendship that endured even when he moved on to other projects. He gave up contracting in favour of the security of something more permanent, and now he works for a software development company in the town centre. Handy for the Red Lion.
‘Colin,’ he says tonelessly in acknowledgment of my arrival.
‘Vaughn,’ I reply.
He wants to talk about his girlfriend again. It’s usually that, or philately.
I brace myself with a couple of good swallows of the bitter, wondering whether it’s too early to be thinking about a whisky chaser. Meanwhile Vaughn chunters on about whether his girlfriend is having an affair. I want to point out that she can hardly be in the first flush of youth – surely it’s unlikely? But he’s convinced that she is lying to him about something. He sits with his head bent low over his pint, pondering whether taking her to Weston-super-Mare in the caravan is a good idea.
My mother took me to Weston-super-Mare on holiday the summer after my father died. We stayed in a guest house three streets back from the seafront; close enough to hear the gulls, not close enough to hear the sea. I was almost thirteen years old and already I didn’t fit into my own skull. I read Eliot and Kafka and watched documentaries on BBC2. Stayed up late and got up early to watch the Open University programmes, back when it was all beards and flared trousers. My mother wanted me to build sandcastles and run in the sea, laughing. I don’t think I laughed once the whole time I was there. I sat in the shade and read until she took my books away. After that I sat in the shade and tried not to look at the girls on the beach.
‘Weston-super-Mare’s probably a bad idea,’ I say.
In the end I take pity on poor old Vaughn and tell him about cortico-limbic responses and non-verbal cues, poor bugger.
‘What the hell’s a limbic response?’ he asks me. And then, before I can respond, ‘Oh, don’t tell me. It’s that bloody course you’ve been doing, isn’t it?’
Poor Vaughn: he likes to think he’s intellectual because he reads the
and drinks a Java blend at weekends.
‘It’s how you can tell if someone’s lying to you,’ I explain. ‘You look at body language, visual cues, autonomic responses, that kind of thing. And you may scoff, but the course has been fascinating, in fact.’
He looks blank.
‘Alright,’ I say, ‘let’s try a little experiment. I’m going to ask you three questions, and I want you to deliberately lie in one of your answers. I’ll see if I can tell when you’re lying. If I’m right, you can buy me another pint. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy your drinks for the next month. Want to have a go?’
‘Oh, yes, alright, then,’ he says. I get the impression he’s cheering up a bit. He’s smiling, but I don’t always trust my instincts with Vaughn. He might be suicidal for all I know. I have been known to get it wrong. Eleanor smiled at me that night, after all, didn’t she? And look how that turned out.