Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
THE BUNGALOWS’ OWNERS HAVE LARDED their lairs with folderols intended to inject personality, but said folderols only emphasize the blandness of the pink-brick, not very elevated elevations. This is ironic, even sad, but unsurprising since most of the folderols have been acquired from the same few shelves in the same few aisles of the local branch of B&Q.
Plants personalise the buildings more successfully, admittedly through concealment rather than enhancement: the larger the plant, and the more of them there are, the better. Trees do the job best of all, especially trees of medium-to-large size, with a low leaf-line that peppers the bungalows’ blandness with broken shade, or comes close to hiding them.
I’m getting a little angry and I don’t want that, so I set the word curtilage trundling around in my head. It’s become one of my favourites over the past few months’ work; I can almost hear it roll, like a prized marble or ball bearing on a polished wooden floor. The sound calms me.
Outside my skull a hot and sulky silence lolls over the neighbourhood, though a reasonably busy road runs only a couple of blocks away. The silence is invisible, of course, but I choose to picture it as a kind of vast, translucent jelly, hovering like some movie mother-ship whose clammy under-parts insinuate themselves into airbricks, letterboxes and drainpipes, and droop between redundant chimney pots. (The wood burner craze hasn’t arrived here yet, current occupants being old enough to remember what a smoky, dusty palaver all of that lugging and cleaning really is. Once they shuffle off, it will be a different story.)
Curtilage, curtilage …
The cul-de-sac sees little traffic; I’ve not been here before but it’s familiar from Google Earth. See the faded Saint George’s flag with the phoney wishing well just opposite! Behold the pretentious Box hedging, blight-riddled! This is the sort of area whose residents secrete their vehicles inside cloned garages, and the few, parked cars are what you’d expect: practical but affordable, new-ish, and dutifully maintained and waxed. Only one front garden is occupied. An old bloke is prodding at one of the borders with a wasp-striped, long-handled, multi-functional, new-fangled tool, all levers and springs. I have no idea what it is. He looks knackered; the plants look knackered; even the soil does. I nod and half-smile as I pass: when in Rome, and all that. The gardener ignores me but his dog growls and stiffens, too lazy/sun-stunned to stand. It’s a Labrador. Well, of course it is. He probably got it in B&-fucking-Q, along with the concrete donkey and its begonia-festooned panniers, and that ridiculous vivid implement, un-lose-able even if you’ve lost your bifocals or, possibly, your sight.
Speakers thump out some temporarily popular drivel and a mustard-coloured Renault Megane convertible passes, too fast. It’s only three years old but there are duct tape dressings on various hood-wounds and a chunk of the rear bumper’s been sheared off. Since nobody living hereabouts would consider driving under anything other than a solid (practical, affordable, dutifully waxed) roof, this has to be the estate agent. The car slews to a halt about thirty metres ahead, quite near the kerb, opposite the bungalow with the most ostentatious satellite dish and the concrete griffons camping it up on the gateposts – a flourish that manages to be both unusual and utterly predictable. The handbrake is wrenched on and the shitty music stops, leaving a reverberating silence that’s still deeper than before. It’s funny what the parking of a car can tell you about its driver. I know that this one hates his or her job, among other things, and I suspect that he or she is going to hate me.
I think it will be a she.
The door flies open with a screech and the predicted female emerges. She brushes her skirt down and straightens her jacket, testily. Cigarette smoke swirls from the car and I fancy I can spot tiny, abruptly extinguished crochets and quavers tumbling out with it; they drift and fade to nothing along with the fumes. The agent senses my approach and switches on a smile that hasn’t been rehearsed quite enough. She’s applied a generous, liverish layer of slap that’s troublingly close to the paint job on her car; she has perplexing eyebrows, and fag-breath. There’s a button missing from her jacket; I knew there would be. I have no idea how old she is, which probably suits her.
I concur, though she hasn’t said my name. Remiss of her. I could be anyone, possibly even someone worse than the someone I am, which is possible if unlikely. She mouths her moniker, which I forget instantly; shakes my hand as perfunctorily as is possible; ducks back into the car, very arse-aware; and then stands to offer the handful of papers she’s hooked from the passenger seat. Careful to smile more sincerely than she, I refuse them and flourish the details I’ve printed out already. She looks affronted, but nods, and strides on worn kitten heels towards the bungalow. Abruptly she swivels and we almost collide.
‘I’ll let Mr T— show you round. But please bear in mind that he and Mrs T— are quite frail, so be gentle.’
Her words indicate concern, her expression the opposite. I nod, understandingly.
I mean: I do understand. I really do.
There are fuchsias here, rather than begonias, and shabby gnomes providing a midget guard of honour. She jabs (bitten nails, varnish at least a week old and as chipped as the gnome-paint), and the doorbell chimes Greensleeves. Lace curtains shimmer and the door is opened very slowly, full forty-nine seconds later: I count them off, in my head.
Mr T—’s clothes are unexceptional but he sports a broad, brown leather belt and striped braces: it seems he’s the cautious type, and much good it seems to have done him. His handshake is firm and his palm calloused. He nods at the agent with dismissive familiarity (the bungalow has been on the market for months) but looks me up and down intently, almost rudely. This alerts me to the probability that Mr T— has eye problems, so I smile broadly, very close up and much more disarmingly than my companion.
Bingo. I should give lessons. Mr T— decides he likes the cut of my jib, and whispers to me from the doorstep, ‘It’s the wife, y’see. Bleedin’ Alzheimer’s. Wouldn’t be movin’ otherwise. We can’t cope, no choice. Thirty-two years in this place. Love it here …'
I commiserate, sincerely. I tell him I’m a cash buyer, not so sincerely.
We enter reverently as if into some neglected country church. The immediate throat-catch of damp heightens that notion but only in the second until the heat hits: no country church was ever this warm. It’s hotter than the street. I feel engulfed, slightly stunned, but decide to enjoy it.
We reach the first open door along the hallway, and Mrs T— nods and waves wildly. Her expression encapsulates delight and vacancy; her legs are elephantine and bandaged. She’s enthroned in some complicated invalid chair, tubular and white and stark against the swirling crimson patterns of the carpet that are the only aspect of the room itself that I take in. There are crutches, certainly, and there might be pulleys, oxygen cylinders etc., but I don’t stare. Mr T— tugs at my sleeve, insistent as a Mexican street boy, and as he shepherds me away the agent clucks over the old woman while texting the office and subtly wrinkling her faux-jaundiced nose.
The bungalow is a testament to poverty and sentiment. Throws, ornaments, cushions and doilies attempt to camouflage threadbare sofas and chipped veneer, no more successful in their purpose than those exterior folderols. Cute animal prints slump crookedly in cheap frames that, in turn, sit skew-whiff on floral wallpaper. There is woodchip, there is polystyrene, there is crochet; there are wedding gift relics that should be in a museum, though no museum would want them. A few sepia forebears gawp from foxed mounts with varying degrees of solemnity and/or embarrassment. I make a point of studying these respectfully but not for too long: people can get surprisingly proprietorial and touchy about their dead. More recent likenesses of absent (though, presumably, still living) offspring, awkward in the graduation clobber of obscure polytechnics, stare from bedside cabinets littered with blister packs and liniment tubes. The spattering of black mould crawling up the walls in the bathroom contrasts almost pleasantly with the polychrome anarchy of the rest of the bungalow (it’s hard to get those carpet patterns in Mrs T—’s room out of my head; they were like vortices of scabbed blood). The bath and basin are pink, and the matching, pre-B&-fucking-Q bog has a cast-iron, overhead cistern and a rusting chain. The boiler, a gargantuan, floor-standing hulk, is fit only for scrap; I feel an ironic surge of fury at those un-caring, absent offspring, and calm myself by reaching into my pocket and fingering the Swann Morton retractable scalpel whose new 10A blade, the best for my purpose, is tucked away safely for now.
Curtilage, curtilage …
I coo, and Mr T— very nearly permits a glimmer of pleasure to break through the hard-won crust of wariness and fatigue. I can see the change; thousands wouldn’t.
‘Want a look outside?’
‘If it’s not too much trouble.'
We move along a narrow cracked path of concrete slabs, painted the same liver-hue as the carpet whorls, between the kitchen and the garage. It’s roofed over with corrugated plastic sheeting whose grooves are stodgy with moss and whose ridges are Pollock’d with bird-shit. I have the feeling such filth is comparatively recent and a source of embarrassment, because Mr T— keeps his gaze fixed on the ground. But his gait is admirable for one so punch-drunk from life: rolling, slightly bandy and giving off no little sense of self-worth. He’s reminiscent of those heavy-arsed toy clowns whose centre of gravity is so low you can’t push them over. Perhaps, he was a sailor. I wouldn’t have wanted to take him on in his prime, or even a decade ago. As for now ...
I haven’t seen one of those clowns for years.
Emerging into the back garden feels like bursting from a dank pool into clear air: the garden is different. Crimson Chrysanths, pom-pom Dahlias, and stringy runner beans are hardly to my taste, but the beds occupy a surprisingly large area and tell of skilful passionate industry. It’s only when I look more closely that neglect reveals itself: there are unpicked vegetables and soft fruits rotting on their stalks; tools left out to rust; an under-commitment to deadheading.
Mr T— notices that I’ve noticed.
‘Pride an’ joy, used t’be. Can’t manage no more.’
He clams up and barrels towards the shed; stands aside to usher me in. It’s dark, cobwebbed and filled with treasures. Mr T— stays outside and mumbles something else.
‘Sorry. I didn’t catch that.’
‘I SAID I’m goin’ effin’ blind …’
The old man starts off almost shouting but then his words curdle and I have to do some more sympathy, albeit from a distance. He turns away to hide tears, peering into whatever shimmering, limited vista remains for him. I perform a brisk inventory of the shed and pocket a pretty, miniature spirit level; then wait, allowing him time to compose himself. (I’ve always liked that phrase, implying as it does that people are somehow akin to songs, melodies, even symphonies. I see myself as something atonal and bracingly abrasive, though still highly organised. I’m not one for improvisation.)
Having allowed a decent, manly interval, I clear my throat and say, ‘Do you mind if I have another wander round inside the house? The layout’s not quite fixed in my head.’
‘Take your time. But I’d better …’ He gestures resignedly towards his wife’s room. ‘She’ll be wonderin’ where I am. Mind you, after five minutes she’ll be wonderin’ who I am.’
I watch him toddle off.
A complicated folding rule and a pair of ebony-and-brass dividers disappear inside my coat; then I follow him back under the pigeon-shit canopy and into the house. The agent is mithering away; I hear Mr T— grunting in response. In the kitchen I switch off the freezer, then quietly open a cupboard and remove the lid from a full pot of honey, turning it upside down and placing it on the top shelf before I close the door. There’s no need to open more jars; honey’s great for the job as it has a way of finding its way everywhere, and sticks almost as beautifully as Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup. There’s none of the latter here, surprisingly. I put the plug in the sink and turn on the tap, just barely. He’ll find that first and think he did it, might wonder if it’s the first sign that he’s following the missus.
The estate agent calls out, ‘Are you OK out there?’ She sounds a little desperate.
‘Never better,’ say I, and it’s true.
‘Let me know if you need any more info, won’t you?'
How I hate lazy, slangy abbreviations.
Curtilage, curtilage …
‘Of course. I won’t be much longer.’
Back in the bedroom I snap the heads from two ceramic spaniels and remove all the light bulbs I can reach. I take out my scalpel, expose that elegant 10A blade, and then notice a subtle change in the light. Mrs T— is standing in the doorway. She looks enormous; a bandaged yeti slumped on a Zimmer frame. I’ve made the mistake of believing she was contributing to the hum of conversation that continues from her room. Silly me. I retract the blade and slip the scalpel behind my back. We look at one another.
She starts to shriek, really shriek.
‘What the fuck are you doing back here? Thought we told you to stay away after last time. Croydon not good enough for you? Why don’t you piss off back to your blonde slag, we don’t want you—’
And then Mr T— is next to her, all ‘There there’, and ‘Come on, Mother, and ‘It’s not Richard, love.’ He shuffles her – suddenly silent and pliable – away, and I’m alone again, touched at this obvious affection, and relieved that he didn’t notice any damage. I flip back the ghastly, quilted duvets (twin beds, unsurprisingly), slice quickly down the centre of each mattress, and rearrange the covers. That won’t be noticed that for ages.
The agent looks relieved to see me: dementia has its limitations. Mr T— mutters an apology and his wife, enthroned once more, smiles at me as if we’ve never met. Injecting a degree of ripe heartiness into my voice I tell the trio that I’ve seen enough of this lovely property. Two of them deliver their lines as readily as I have, the third nods and grins absently, and when all brisk niceties have been observed the agent and I see ourselves out, promising an early response.
It’s milder than in the house, and the change in temperature seems to permit more ambient noise: dogs yap and a thrush pipes away cheerfully. The mother-ship has moved on, or assumed a higher altitude, allowing cooler currents and this livelier atmosphere to circulate below her clammy, drooping under-parts. The agent (still arse-aware) leads me back between the gnomes and we hit the pavement. She turns on her eroded heels, lights up and inhales suicidally, circumflex eyebrows jitterbugging.
‘What did you think? Potential? It’s not in the best of condition but it’s a very good price and there’s space for a decent conservato—’
Slowly, deliberately I make a cut-throat gesture. The agent looks confused, as well she might. I step right up to her and stare into her eyes for four seconds: I count them off in my head. She backs off, almost tripping, clutching her handbag to her belly. I shove her aside and walk away briskly.
She shouts rash obscenities from her car as she speeds past, but wisely doesn’t stop.
A mile or so away, having taken the circuitous footpath-and-alley route I’d planned earlier (in case of constabulary involvement), on a quiet bridge over the town’s less-than-pristine waterway I take out the SIM card from the pay-as-you-go mobile and drop it into the water. It glints and bobs, then disappears, or perhaps I just lose interest. A little further downriver I drown the phone, hurling it mid-stream: you can’t be too careful and I’ve got plenty more at home.
Though I’m already contemplating my next outing I pause to inspect today’s trophies. Coincidentally, they’re all engraved with the same legend: J. RABONE & SONS. MADE IN ENGLAND. The old man’s fingers have rubbed away the silver-plating on the spirit level and its bright, brass core catches the sun, very cheerfully. The dividers feel just so in my hand; the folding rule is a miracle of pivots.
I feed them to the nearest drain and jog to the station, replenished.