The package arrived the same day that my girlfriend and I broke up. It came late, after hours of Emma trying to contact me – first texting in the morning to say that we should talk, then missed calling me at lunch, then texting me again to say I needed to call her in the late afternoon, then missed calling me during my Monday meeting with my line manager, then texting me I found someone else x, at the end of the day.
It was five-thirty and I rang her back but she didn’t pick up. I rang again in five minutes and she said, on the phone finally, that it was exactly like me to ignore her calling until it was an emergency.
‘But I was working,’ I said.
‘Mm,’ was her response.
The rest of the conversation was Emma describing some guy she’d met out at her friend Steph’s hen do, named Gary – of all things – at some club, who’d she let text her, and then met up with once for a drink and enjoyed it, and while she was speaking I was watching this new guy Ryan staring at the water cooler like he didn’t understand how it worked.
I tried to gesture to him. ‘Just press it, mate,’ I said, then said, ‘I can change,’ to Emma.
‘You don’t think I can.’
‘I don’t know what I think. But I know I’m getting tired of thinking…’
I sat at the back on the top deck of the bus on the way home with my head against the glass. When I got in I saw that I had only a centimetre of ketchup, some carrots, and a sealed bag of dark wet rocket in the fridge, a can of mushy peas in the cupboard.
‘What a day,’ I said, and the door knocked with the delivery.
I don’t really remember the deliveryman’s face, but he was young, I think, with frayed jean shorts on, work boots and a company top. He had a hand trolley parked to his left, and on it, filling it, was a one-metre by one-metre wooden box.
I hadn’t ordered anything, told him that, and he made me check the name.
It was mine.
‘Where’s it from?’
‘No clue mate.’ He had a bit of an accent, possibly Polish. ‘Sign here?’
‘Don’t you have some sort of manifest or something?’ I said, taking the little Ghostbusters device that they carry around with them and scribbling into it.
He looked down at himself, at the left and right pockets of his shorts, behind his back, patted his thighs. ‘No,’ he said, genuinely. ‘Don’t think so.’
He wheeled in the crate, tipped it up off his trolley in the middle of my living room, and then wheeled himself out, pale calves in brown boots, waved goodbye and shut the door.
I had no idea what it was, walked around it but saw no clues. There wasn’t much to it: about ten slats of some sort of light-coloured wood on each side, nailed together, box-shaped, with one of those cling film labels stuck to the top that I peeled off at the same time my phone vibrated in my pocket. A text, from my mate Andy:
‘Must be from home,’ I said aloud to the box and texted back where r u?
finished work mate
Then another from him: bored.
There was no obvious way into the crate. I started thumbing another message into my phone and squatted, stroked the fingertips of my empty hand along the seams between the planks of wood, tried to slide my nails into the gaps. Nothing doing. I circled it in a squat, like a crab-man, pushing my fingers into the crevices until I realised that the top of it was separate from the rest, with nails driven into it vertically – was some sort of lid.
I texted: just got a package from my mum i think
hilarious, I wrote, Its massive. you could fit a – I stopped, thought, typed – giraffe – in it. I went to press send but then added Easily, and grinned, then sent it.
The screen said that Andy was writing but then the dialogue box disappeared.
I set my phone on top of the crate, went into my kitchen, my flat so small and open-plan that the kitchen was four steps from where I was standing, opened a drawer, got a hammer, and took the four steps back. I held the hammer up, rotated it so the hook end faced the box, posed that way for a minute, thought Oldboy, then got three short texts from Andy:
ok I wrote, tucked my phone into my front pocket and dug the hammer’s back under the lid and wrenched, wrenched again – it was stuck tight – and creaked and creaked the lid up, bit by bit, until it came off.
Inside the crate, in various different lengths, thicknesses, and skin colours – from what looked like a range of different ages – were about thirty to forty severed limbs.
‘Fucking hell,’ I said. ‘Jesus,’ and dropped the hammer.
I bent down and got the lid up and backed away, holding it to block my body and checked the packing label again and it was definitely in my name, my address. I looked around my flat but there was nothing there to see, and Andy texted back:
‘Shit,’ I said.
Katie was a girl I’d fancied for over two years and I was positive that she’d started to feel the same way. A workmate of Andy’s, she’d come out from time to time, could hold her drink – stuck to pints, ciders – had lovely grey-green eyes, perfect teeth, an American movie star’s smile, clean skin. Emma was gone and I was single again. Work had been mental. I looked at the opened crate and thought about Katie – her smooth dark hair, the fact that she was into running, her nice hands, legs. I went for the pint.
It was a good laugh, actually. I told them both when I arrived that Emma had dumped me and got the standard sympathy – Ah mate. How you taking it? There’re more fish in the sea – and got excused by Andy from buying the next round even though I’d arrived late and their pints were almost all foam. I hadn’t mentioned Emma leaving me specifically as a signal to Katie, but saw in the way she gathered her hair and lifted it onto her shoulder, away from me, tilted her head and smiled her blockbuster smile, that she’d taken it that way.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘It’s alright. I could tell it was in the cards. We’d been growing apart, a bit.’
‘It’s still not nice.’
‘Nah, but it could be worse.’
Andy returned, pints held like a bouquet.
‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘To freedom.’
Once the door of my flat closed I turned back and thought I shouldn’t leave the crate, but then I decided an hour away from it wouldn’t change anything; it might even help me to make sense of it all, and then I was in the bar and saw Katie – who looked amazing – and then the conversation started to flow and I fell into the moment. It was great banter. Katie was as she always was: quick-witted, sarcastic, sharp with a joke and much funnier than Emma. Andy too was on almost perfect form.
‘Mate,’ he said, mid-flow, mid-story, ‘that whole night was bananas in pyjamas.’
I was only three pints in when I noticed that Katie was giving me all the signs: still playing with her hair; maintaining eye contact with me for ages, even when I wasn’t talking; laughing at things I said that weren’t that funny, far harder than they really deserved. I’d say something and she’d reach across the table and touch my hand like she was encouraging me, petting me.
‘Arsenal, mate,’ Andy said, breaking one long dose of Katie’s grey eyes. ‘Fuck. It’s not even October yet and it’s already like, Arsène mate.’
‘It’s just disgraceful. Like, fool me once,’ he took a swig of his pint. ‘You know? You just feel embarrassed at this stage. Like tormented. I just want to ring Wegner and say, mate…’
‘Bon soir,’ Katie said.
‘Yeah,’ Andy grinned, chuckled. ‘Bon soir mate. What the fuck?’
We all laughed.
Emma and I had been together for just over a year which meant I was well out of practice. I started thinking that I should try to convert Katie’s obvious interest into something else, but couldn’t work out how to do it in a way that didn’t feel awkward. Her hand on and off my hand was ongoing, there was constant contact between her knees and my knees under the table that I didn’t think was accidental – but I was useless, and ended our evening with a ‘We have to do this again,’ like a mug, rode the bus back like a donut and got back to my flat steaming and feeling annoyed.
It wasn’t just my lack of skill with Katie – although that was a big part of it – it was also Emma, what happened finally hitting me on the slow walk up the stairs to my flat. I was alone. I was dumped for someone she met on holiday, on a hen do for God’s sake, named Gary of all things, and I flicked on the main light in my flat and right in the middle of the floor was the crate, just like I’d left it.
I’d completely forgotten it was there.
I approached, hazy, half-drunk, my balance somewhere just off to my left and the room not quite spinning yet but not quite straight either. If not for the alcohol I don’t think I would have had the courage to go back to the box and lift the lid a second time. But I had drank. Was a bit drunk.
Inside was like the meat section of your local supermarket but with the plastic ripped off the chicken, the ham, the liver, everything slid from its tray and poured into a cardboard box in the centre of the aisle. The fact that there were arms and legs in it was bad enough, but the rawness, the fresh fleshiness of it all hit me the hardest. Everything intertwined, overlapped, filled to the brim and, unlike earlier, with an almost metallic smell.
I closed it and coughed – coughing and hacking and hacking and hacking coughs up into my closed fist and out of my nose at the smell. With the lid on the stink of it pretty much vanished, but without it the rawness filled my mouth.
It was about midnight by then and I had work the next morning. I’d had quite a lot to drink, six rounds, and thought if I phoned anyone about this with the alcohol on my breath and my balance gone, in the state I was in— I don’t know; I knew I’d have a better plan of action in the morning, when I was sober.
I started to brush my teeth with the crate reflected in my bathroom mirror, closed the door. Went out afterwards toward my bedroom, the room rotating now, and had to pilot a way around the crate, paused and thought I ought to cover it up, out of respect, and fetched a sheet from my cupboard and laid it over on top and turned off the lights.
And overslept. I had one of those mornings where you feel like you’re dreaming your alarm goes off, and snap up to see that either it never rang or you snoozed right through it.
I leapt from bed, a headache like a brick switched for my brain, and dived into the shower, dressed, and left the covered crate, in its sheet, for the crush of the bus, a run down the street, the elevator and the office.
I didn’t neglect it. At work I searched online for solutions between emails and meetings, but didn’t turn up much. The police were the obvious option of course, but I still wasn’t clear on what to say to them and how I would frame things in a way that didn’t feel suspicious, and I couldn’t call them from work – or I could, but then they would probably come into work and I’d have to meet them in the office, my colleagues watching and wanting to know what was up. I’d need a story for my line manager, for everyone, and it was too difficult. I typed the non-emergency number into my phone anyway, for later, checked other things. I searched for ‘crate of limbs’ online but regretted it as soon as I did, clicked away. I searched for ‘people trafficking’ to see if that could be some link, to see if there was a specific phone number for help or something but was drowned in pages and pages on the topic and knew reading through all of it would take too long. I wasn’t a detective, was on my work computer. I needed to keep it straightforward: I’d get home, call the police, they’d sort it out, and that would be the end of it. On the way back on the bus I could work out specifically what to say. Simples.
But then, around three o’clock or so Janette, who had the desk to my right, passed an envelope heavy with pound coins to me, her telephone wedged into her shoulder. I opened it and inside was a card – Sorry You’re Leaving – for Geoffrey, one of my older colleagues, who was moving to Australia. Almost everyone else had signed it.
‘Shit,’ I said to Lorraine, who sat on the desk to my left, leaned in towards her, whispered, ‘Is it Geoffrey’s thing tonight?’
She shook her head at me. ‘Obviously.’
I checked my Outlook calendar and right there in it, at six, was Leaving do.
‘Oh no I don’t know if I can come,’ I said. ‘I’ve got this—this other thing, on, at home.’ But even as I said it I knew I was stuck. Geoffrey was a nice guy, had done a lot for me over the years, gave me advice on how to manage my manager when I first arrived. He was a laugh, in general, around the office, always upbeat. ‘Shit,’ I said again to Lorraine. ‘I completely forgot it was today.’
I had to go, and rolled out with everyone to a bar, in the middle of town, about twenty minutes by bus from my flat. When we arrived Geoffrey said he’d written a goodbye speech he wanted us all to hear but he waited ages to say it. Someone ordered chips, olives, we got a round in.
I want to say I spent the wait for Geoffrey’s speech feeling anxious and checking the time but I didn’t. The handful of people on our team who usually rushed home to their kids were out with us. My line manager was out with us. The receptionist was out with us. We were all there and the mood was really good, really nice. By the time Geoffrey stood up to thank everyone, about half-seven or eight, and thanked me, personally, I didn’t want to say goodbye but had to – did the rounds of hugs and handshakes, gave Geoffrey a massive pat on the back and bolted to the bus stop, where I got a text: what are you up to tonite?
It was an unknown number and I feared the worst, wrote back, who is this?
The dialogue bubble.
It was already dark: the sort of time in September when the days are creeping shorter but it’s still a bit warm. Above me the electronic counter in the bus shelter said I had a fifteen-minute wait. I checked the time now – about 8:00 or so – and made some rough calculations. I just couldn’t do it.
not tonight mate, I wrote, busy,but didn’t send it, stood up, paced inside the shelter trying to think of what I could add to take the sting out, to keep up what she was brave enough to show now was serious interest alive, to not put her off. but how about tomorrow? what are your plans for this weekend? I thought maybe I ought to retype the whole thing and open it with a joke, like, bit keen? But no – I deleted it all, looked at our four messages above the empty response box. I really, really didn’t want to put her off.
‘Shit.’ I said, and wrote I could come for one? pressed send before I could rethink it, and met her, Katie, just around the corner. We stayed for two, then three, and I spent the night at hers.
It was a surprise but the opening details aren’t really that exceptional: more accidental touching, more eye contact, more open flirting. At about ten she invited me back to her flat for a cup of tea we both knew I didn’t want, or need, and I followed.
The rest was glorious. A bit sloppy, of course, but with that amazing feeling you get in those rare times you actually pull someone you really, really fancy and you finally touch, and see naked, all of the things you’d imagined to yourself. Katie there with me wiped Emma completely out of my mind. I thought at the start that I should have sorted out what was back at my flat, but I knew it would be waiting, and if I messed up with Katie she might not be.
‘You have a nice leaving do?’ she asked, grinning, after we woke up.
I cuddled closer into the scent of her, grinned back. ‘Can’t complain.’
‘I’m jealous of Jeff,’ she yawned, one of her legs winding itself tight around both of mine. ‘I wish I was moving down to Australia.’
‘Put you off that quick?’
‘No not like that!’ she said and play-smacked my arm. ‘I mean, it’s like, it’s a nice life. All that space. Everything’s cheap.’
‘Is it? I’ve never been. I was supposed to go before I started uni but couldn’t get a good flight. Went to Fiji instead. Didn’t get up to much.’
She shifted about a bit. ‘I’ve got an old school friend near Darwin. No one can afford to buy a flat here but she and her husband have got, like, a farm, three kids. They keep posting up these pictures—’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a friend in America.’
‘It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I can barely save a deposit and she’s like on a jetski the whole time.’
We separated slowly – talked for a bit longer about this and that until I had to go to work, do the walk of shame thing to a clothes shop, buy a shirt. I didn’t get home until well after seven that night – the crate sitting there, draped, right in the middle of everything.
I sighed and lifted up the edge of the sheet and saw, in just over twenty-four hours, that the box’s outside had somehow spotted with wide circles of grey and green mould. I dropped the corner back down, and took my phone out shaking my head.
I had to tackle it. Right, I thought, clicked through to the non-emergency number and tried to rehearse some lines. As I went to call, I got a notification that Emma had sent me a message. I went to it but there was nothing in it – just a full stop.
‘What does that mean?’ I said.
Doesn’t matter, I thought, went back to the emergency number, walked an orbit of the crate staring at it, but then went back to the message – a full stop? – then clicked into some photos of Emma and I together, smiling outside of various places, on our holidays. I realised I’d forgotten the name of the place in Malaysia we went, scrolled through emails to look it up, saw a friend had sent me a link to a video, in between all the junk mail, but I didn’t watch it, put the phone down on my couch.
The thought bloomed that if Emma was there she’d know exactly what to do. Katie was fun but I still held something, some feeling, for Emma – of course I did – we’d barely broken up – and Emma was good at motivating me. This Gary guy, whoever he was, didn’t deserve her. So I texted her back: Hey.
It wasn’t the right thing to do. I knew it as soon as it went. Even describing it doesn’t make any sense. The crate was there and I walked around it watching my phone’s screen not responding, and felt ashamed – Hey shining in my face.
I put the phone down, leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the crate. I walked to it, around it, then slashed the whole sheet off.
It was covered in mould. On the top, where the sheet was tightest, the blossoms had height, depth, texture, and again, I opened the lid.
I think I thought I needed to see it, to be able to describe it, to be reminded, to fix it in my mind. I also think I half-hoped somewhere inside that the problem would have resolved itself, that it all would have been transformed into a stack of jumpers from my mum or something, but it hadn’t. Nothing was any better; it was the same thing it had been but worse, starting to rot. Fingers and feet. Long and short. Kids and adults. The smell.
I sealed it back up and draped the sheet.
I had to deal with it, I thought, sighed and sat on my couch and tried again to think about what I would say. I’d received this package yesterday. No, the day before. And I opened it and I saw all this. Why did you wait so long to call us they’d ask, and I’d say I was actually really busy.
‘That’s stupid,’ I said out loud. No. I’d say I wanted to read more about what it was, work out what it was about first before I did anything, but that didn’t make any sense either.
I stood up and walked to my kitchen, to my fridge, and opened it, while still thinking, to the same rotting bag of rocket, carrots, few streaks of ketchup in a bottle. I felt hungry, checked the time, rang Katie.
I was avoiding it, to be honest, and Katie and I saw each other again that night, at her flat, and then the week exploded. We were a man down at work so it got even busier and then Emma texted me to say that her and her hen night fling Gary had already broken up, that she’d made a mistake – that she knew it as soon as she saw my message. I didn’t really know how to react to that so just left it a few days and then she called me, bawling.
It was already Saturday. I was tired and felt like I needed some downtime, but couldn’t just leave her somewhere crying alone and invited her round to my flat, pushing and straining the covered crate into the corner – putting a book on top of it, opened, like it was some sort of display or plinth.
Emma arrived with a bottle of wine and we talked. She was a good girl. She wasn’t really funny or anything like Katie, but she was sweet, someone really caring, which you don’t find that often anymore.
I was thinking that as she was telling the Gary story again and then I reached my hand across to her face, and she let me, and then I kissed her, opened her jacket, slipped off her shoes and socks.
The rest just happened, the old rhythms re-establishing themselves. We both knew each other well and although that made it feel step-by-step compared to Katie, that made it comfortable and easy too. Still, being there together with her on the couch, with the crate in the background, and then shifting into the bedroom – it felt wrong at the same time, made me realise how quickly I’d fallen for Katie, how the Gary thing had been a good way out.
In the morning I woke up slowly, then suddenly, to an empty bed, and an incredible, terrible smell, so thick and full that when I first realised I was smelling it, it made me retch.
I threw off the sheets, one hand over my nose and mouth and rushed out to Emma, standing in my living room in nothing, the sheet crumpled at her feet, the book on my couch, the lid tilted up in her right hand, her left hand shielding her mouth, facing the crate, now completely covered in wet mould.
The stink of it was all I could breathe, feel, the stench almost physical on my skin.
I said, through my hand, ‘Emma?’
She turned and I couldn’t help but think how perfect her torso was, how beautiful her breasts were when they shook – her whole body. ‘What the fuck is this?’ she said, the contents of the crate now liquid, a slurry of brown, violet, of lumps and chunks.
‘Someone sent it by mistake.’
‘It’s horrible,’ she said, closed it. ‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know. Just some kind of mess. Meat.’
‘Meat? Why did you keep a box of meat? Send it back.’
‘There’s no address on it.’
‘Then put it in the skip.’
‘I think it’s too heavy to carry down.’
‘You can’t keep it here, it’s horrible. It’s rotting meat.’
‘No, I know,’ I said. ‘I wanted to—’
‘Why would you keep this in your house?’
I took her hand, hugged her. ‘No, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll sort it out. Forget about it for now. Shhh,’ I said, kissed the top of her head, tilted her chin and kissed her mouth, and knew when I did that it was the wrong thing to do.
She pushed me away. Stared for a minute – her body head to toe in front of me – all of her – shook her head. ‘This was a mistake,’ she said, stepping back, crossed her arms to cover her chest. ‘I need to go home.’ She turned for the bedroom.
‘Emma,’ I said, following her, watching her bend for, shake out, and slide on all her clothes. ‘Sorry. I know that was patronising.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, ‘it’s what you do.’
‘Mm,’ she said, buttoning her shirt, and then did something it’s impossible to forget. She took the back of her hand, after she was dressed, and wiped her lips with it, scrubbing them on the space above her wrist, just behind her thumb, to get rid of me.
There’s not much more left to say. I took Emma’s leaving the way she did quite hard and got a bit depressed. Katie texted me at the start of the next week but I left it two days before getting back to her. When she replied I wrote something a bit evasive, said we should maybe meet up the following week. I went to the supermarket, finally, binge-watched a boxed set I’d bought almost a full year ago, around the time Emma and I started seeing each other, pulled a sickie and had a duvet day.
The crate stayed, covered, in the corner. I tried at first to follow what Emma had said, to lift it to put it in the bins outside, but I was right; it was far too heavy for me to do more than slide around by myself. And after over a week, with all the decay, there was no story I could believably tell the police about why I’d hadn’t done anything about it. I checked the news to see if there were things happening that were connected but there weren’t – there were some other things, but none of it was directly relevant—
So I left it. For another week, two weeks, the whole outside of it changing colour, the smell starting to leak. I bought some air fresheners and stuck them along the wall behind it and that largely did the trick. And then Katie and I started texting back and forth again but she was off, on holiday, to Ibiza.
Jealous! I texted. When she came back I didn’t see her.
A month, maybe more than a month after the crate arrived, Andy and I grabbed some pints and started talking with a group of girls and two of them wanted to keep the party going after last call. I was the only one of the four of us who lived alone so, tins in hand, up the stairs, into my door and onto my couch, Andy pouring the beers into wine glasses for the girls for reasons all his own and my cupboards, thankfully, stocked for a change. I put out some crisps and biscuits in bowls.
Andy laughed. ‘Mate, what are we six?’
My heart was racing and my mouth felt dry. It was like I was back at uni: two girls in my flat with my best mate. I slid on the couch next to the one I liked most, a redhead, and the other one, Andy’s, pointed at a draped square thing in the corner of the room, a few books stacked on top of it, a half-drunk glass of beer on top of it, my house phone on top of it, my Xbox control.
‘What’s that?’ she said.
‘That box. What is that?’ She pointed at it, then shifted her finger so it aimed at the bottom, where the sheet fell a bit short, and you could see a thin line of the wet mould, smiled awkwardly, shook her head.
‘Oh that,’ I said. ‘I really do need to sort that out.’