She was waiting by the delicatessen fridges, on a wooden seat. She looked behind her, through the window, and watched my approach with her neck twisted. The shop was empty. A sliding door noise came from the back room, and then a ‘chock!’ sound, a falling knife. Behind the display cabinet an array of sausages, hams, a roughly chopped salad coated in mayonnaise, all sitting on plastic grass.
‘My daughter is meeting me here,’ she said, ‘as soon as he’s gone.’
She handed me a boxcutter, pointed at the plastic-wrapped mound in front of us, taped around a long wooden pallet. I cut into the outer sheet, slid the knife down it, and pulled back the grey plastic. The plastic put up a fight – of course, he was underneath it.
He was conscious!
Hadn’t she given him sleeping pills? Hadn’t they sedated him?
‘We are living in a different world now,’ she said.
She pressed the money into my hand. Her daughter arrived, looked through the glass, and they were away.
It was winter. Still winter, but with the trees budding and the blades poking from the soil and the sudden appearance of the sun before I was out of bed. On the rooftops the gulls were slow to wake up, wrinkling their grey eyelids and sitting fatly, roundly in one place. A red spiky plant quavered in gentle wind, the only indication that time was passing, hadn’t stalled behind the dark, shining windows of the opposite houses.
I dragged him behind me, face exposed to sky.
I left it a week before I went into the room. Until that point I just abandoned food inside the doorway, when it was quiet, then slid the bolt behind me.
He was lying flat on the bed on top of the covers. His chest rose and fell and the pale whiskers around his mouth quivered on his snoring breath.
There was mud on the windowsill, from feet stepping up onto the low white sill, from looking out of the window down at the paved square of garden.
A turquoise-flecked bowl sat by the bed, holding a spoon and the shine of milk. Around the interior of the bowl were some pieces of bran flake and atomised coconut.
I left the room, clicking the door as quietly as I could behind me. A few seconds later I heard the voice, loud but senseless. I had disturbed him. Was he howling to me? Was he aware of having been woken? I slid the bolt across.
The next day I let him roam free inside the flat. Then there was no escaping him. He was sitting in that low chair, in the middle of the room, facing me. He stared at me with eyes like glyphs. He walked around me, in a circle, not looking at me but at the walls, at the sides of my head, and I felt his eyes examining my back, my clothes. His eyes were silver. The pupils sat in that silver band like dark stones, glassy. No. In fact I didn’t look into his eyes. I am imagining his eyes, now, with what I know. What was there? His expression was blank, was a lid, his expression came away in one piece. The expression was a cap on a void, designed to conceal that. Take away the expression and what then? Vacuum isn’t the right word. Can you compress dimensions? What does it mean if you compress a gigantic empty space?
He was never happy. I found bright white hairs that had fallen out from around his lips, scattered on the carpet, around the flat, and noticed he’d balded, from misery, had plucked them himself.
How else to describe what I know you already know, the obvious? When he entered the room there was a heavy hanging awkwardness, a speechless gap and averted eyes. Fumes of sadness came off him.
I admit it. I was losing control. Or I never had control. I couldn’t seize it back, if I’d ever had it. What did control look like, feel like? Once it had been possible, that’s all I can say. Yes, it felt possible. Perhaps I made the right decision, or wrong, I can’t say. How do you show your love every single hour of every single day?
For some peace I would sit outside for an hour. I tried to ignore that I could hear crashes, furniture being moved, shoved over.
As I went back inside I saw my neighbour. ‘I haven’t seen you for a while,’ she said. ‘How are you, everything alright?’ I told her I was fine. ‘What has happened to February?’ she said.
I wanted to ask the same question, seriously. It had turned into a pellet. It’d been dropped in lightless liquid and dissolved. I felt disbelief. February? It was gone, the month, it was gone. ‘Did you notice it? Going very fast?’ she said. I said I did. She waved goodbye and went inside. Wasn’t she able to hear the destruction going on inside my flat? Was she ignoring it?
My company was not enough. I was very tired all the time, exhausted.
Another one? That was all I could think of. I got him from the same delicatessen.
There was nobody waiting this time. Nobody there. At the back of the shop I could hear a man’s voice, speaking on the telephone. I followed it behind the till, down a corridor, up three steps, and then round the cream-coloured bend into the backroom, the back office, cream-coloured shiny walls with black chips in the paint, a table with just enough space to rest feet up on it. The man was speaking on the phone, asking questions, making short statements. ‘Well…’ he said, then covered the receiver with one hand and shouted through a door behind him. He yelled the woman’s name and returned to the call. ‘Is it in the shipment, next?’ he said, then looked at me, pointed at an armchair for me to sit in. ‘I haven’t seen the statements, no I haven’t heard from Astrid. What is it?’
As soon as I took my place in the armchair, the woman appeared.
She pulled the grey plastic shape along behind her, the pallet wood scraping on the laminate floor, and stopped in the middle of the room. She handed me the boxcutter. The plastic slit open. The man inside the plastic sat there still with his face poking out of the hole she’d cut. He blinked and produced a long, orange tongue.
‘You didn’t sedate this one either?’
‘Sedate?!’ she said at a whisper. ‘We’ve never used sedatives. That’s pure nostalgia. You’re longing for what never was.’
The rings of tape around the parcel were thick, many-layered. Inside the plastic he struggled against them.
Together we dragged him down the cream-coloured corridor. Inside the main delicatessen she rested. She slumped on her stool and leaned against the wall. It was cold, the wall. She pressed her back against it and took on a mask-like face, like she was witnessing herself. She clasped one hand in the other. I mean she put her hands over each other as if she was in the appalled jury of herself. Was she guilty? These acts had been committed, that was not in any doubt. Was it right? No it wasn’t. But who would do differently? In the same position, in her situation, in these shoes.
He was blinking behind the plastic and smacking his teeth. ‘Enough,’ she said. Then she reached for the sellotape and struck out a long piece and tightened it around his face and neck, leaving a single blue eye peeping out. ‘Can you move him? Alone? This one is heavier,’ she said.
I grabbed the wooden base of the pallet and dragged it, he moved an inch or two. ‘Yes,’ I told her.
A frantic knocking on the glass, two eyes peering through. ‘My daughter is here,’ she said. ‘I have to go.’ She stood up and rushed out, then stopped herself, produced a cheque and handed it to me. ‘I almost forgot,’ she said.
Inside the plastic he wriggled feebly, making the plastic creak, as I heaved him back the same route.
It was the middle of the day. He was very heavy. It took two hours to go the half mile back. Dragging him over the tarmac. ‘Why don’t you let him out? Let him out and he can walk?’ people said. I thanked them, smiled.
I was nearly there. Bulbs of orange were starting to appear on the creepers that coated the back walls, and elsewhere flowers turned bright within the lush dark leaves of the passionflower. The ivy had cascaded, built up, like a wave which brushed against my head as I dragged the pallet along the side path to my flat.
From the path I could hear yelling, doors being slammed, the smashing of plates, cups. Left alone he became sadder, more volatile.
I went in the back door. The entrance there was separated by a screen, so there was no possibility of an escape.
I sensed someone behind me – watching – my neighbour? I spun around. But there was nobody there. Just him inside the plastic. Only naked tree branches, rising upwards like ornate candlesticks with red leaves as if about to produce fire. A honeysuckle scaled with yellow petals on the cusp of bursting open.
As soon as I brought the second one in there was difficulty. The misery was endless. They scrapped, put a gouge in the wall. My head was knocked against a doorframe and I felt the frontiers of my skull clash.
I fed them separately until there was peace. What kind of peace? There’s no real peace with them in the flat, always stalking and glowing, picking at the wallpaper then flying into a mad rage against each either, tipping over the table and chairs, banging on the windows, pulling each other’s whiskers until I pried them away from each other and locked them apart. It was terrible. I hated looking after them when I was failing to look after them. I was incapable.
The afternoon I managed to feed them, they were calmer. They slipped the food into their mouths and left plates smeared with the brown runoff of the onions and scraps of sausagemeat in skins, then crept around the living room. They went to the windows and looked out. They touched the black screen of the television. Then they started to yell, began fighting again.
It had ended badly. One of them was sick on the floor. I had gone too quickly. Every day was a horrible confrontation. I could hardly get them in the room at the same time, that’s how it was all the time. I don’t know when exactly it was. There was a bigger fight. A week or two later. My arm was broken.
My neighbour asked me, are you OK, how did you do that?
‘An accident,’ I told her. ‘Don’t worry.’ It wasn’t a terrible break. A fracture. I had a cast and painkillers.
I was being more careful. Organised. One of them had my bedroom. The other stayed in the living room and kitchen. I kept the hallway doors closed.
‘Where are you going?’ she said. ‘Let me know if I can help with anything.’ Then her phone went, she answered it and went inside.
Things had improved. I had made myself safe at night. I slept in a cupboard. If it wasn’t for the tiny cupboard, actually quite a nice cupboard, inside, I thought, laughing to myself, then the flat would feel much smaller. A bizarre feeling of happiness filled me. The cupboard was in fact much bigger than I’d realised. If I put my back against the wall and reached out, my fingers didn’t quite touch the wall on the other side. And it was warm in there, with the exposed pipes carrying hot water to different radiators running from the ceiling to the floor. It was dark, but there was nothing really to see, the interior had been painted white, and there were crumbled screw holes along one wall, where shelves had once been fixed to blown plaster.
Most of the night they kept to their separate spaces and the fighting was not so intense.
There was stalemate. Tethered anger, held back but simmering. From that, something beautiful arrived in the flat. Something golden. Everything was plated with peace. It all shone. When I turned on the kitchen tap, a sheet of water skimmed away from a plate, like the translucent feathers of a bird in air. When I woke at night, as I still did every hour or two, it was rarely to battering, yelling, crashing. God. I was with such a profound joy, a new joy, that I lived then. Greater, greatest joy.
I pressed my elbows against the cupboard walls and felt those pains of growth. My own howl filled the space. I pushed deeper, the back wall buckled and flaked into sheets, revealing the hairy staves of wood behind it, a cavity space. Such a great cavity, just behind the plasterboard, how had I not known? Warm air odorous with pine welcomed me as I tucked myself inside, inch by inch until the little cupboard was empty and I was moving through the wall. I nestled there until I heard rain above me. Near silence. The pure relief of it. I was flooded with happiness.
When I called the woman there was no answer. I rang back again later – nothing. God. Days later I managed to get through to her. She sounded different, younger perhaps. Or was this her daughter? I couldn’t tell. I’d never heard her daughter speaking, only seen her through the window, summoning her away.
The delicatessen sign said ‘closed’, and the glass was dirtied from inside, obscured with paste. I could see a dull orange light in the back from somewhere. Someone was moving inside. The windows along the side of the building were lined with shelves intended to display cans of oil, imported flour, jars of olives and pickles and canned tomatoes, bright improbably-green pickles and slices of luminous lemon, and some slivers of preserved fish. That’s what I’d remembered, an array of different tapas, oils, wines, and the like. Now along the side was a row of cardboard boxes stacked up and a big spray of mud, like a grinding wheel had spun against something coated in wet dirt, and had sprayed a thick pattern against the glass.
I went inside – it wasn’t locked. I went along the cream-coloured corridor, through the office, behind the back door and up a set of stairs to a front door. I knocked on it quietly. I was nervous. But I was sure this was the woman’s flat.
She appeared. She didn’t want to talk. Her daughter was running late, she said. ‘What happened to your arm?’ I told her it was an accident. But she wasn’t listening – she was looking at her mobile phone. ‘Come on inside then.’
The man I’d seen speaking on the phone was asleep, stretched out on a sofa near the door. I could hear the phone ringing unanswered in the back office, traveling up the stairs behind me. The ugly smell of raw meat wafted up from the delicatessen with it, and met the homely smells of cooking and the perfume of the flat.
‘How will you move him, well, with your arm like that? Will you even manage it?’ One thing led to another.
‘My daughter will be here in a few minutes,’ she said through her hands. She wept. ‘Which world is this, which world is this?’
Ed Cottrell is a writer based in Brighton. His work has appeared in 3:AM, Short Fiction Journal, Structo, and others. He was the winner of the 2018 Desperate Literature Prize, has been selected for Best Small Fictions (USA), and shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize. He works as Digital Content Editor at Modern Poetry in Translation.
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