Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
‘The Land of Nod’
ERNEST AWOKE WITH a mouthful of Eric. The taste left something to be desired. The length of iron piping in which the pair lived, or at least slept, was around ten-foot long, with an inner diameter of about the same width. Within it, the men waged a bitter war of attrition against the Earth’s gravitational pull. Each night, they would make up their tatty beds upon the pipe’s opposing banks – Eric on the left, Ernest on the right – as far away from the other as was possible in such a confined space. The pipe’s metal was rusted, but not yet coarse, and their polyester sleeping bags could get little purchase upon it. Each slight readjustment or roll inched them downwards. When they were awake, these incremental slips could be corrected with a corresponding wriggle back up the slope, but in the wee late hours, once sleep had drawn shut their weary eyes, it was never long before they slid back again. They seeped down its sides like cooling tar, and pooled at the lowest point. So it was that they would wake, each morning, cramped up together at the pipe’s nadir.
With a sound like duct tape ripped from the roll, Ernest unpeeled his cheek from Eric’s broad, bristly shoulders – sleepily, though not without care. It was early yet, and his friend would not thank him to be woken. During the night, Eric’s woolly jumper had ridden up a little, and now a hairy swell of belly ballooned over his tracksuit’s elasticated waist. His eyelids flickered, as he dreamt a sweet dream of meat and mastication. The fat man’s jaw dropped open wetly, and from it passed a long gaseous fug of breath and plaque. On the right side of his mouth, Eric’s long bad tooth glinted black in the murk, slick with spittle. Dead in the gum it was, rotting up from the root. That didn’t help the smell, either.
Still, I’m no prize pig meself, thought Ernest, as he flossed yesterday’s socks between his toes, and pulled them over his knobbly feet. He ran his tongue idly along his own gums. His mouth, in turn, was characterised by absence: at three, he had taken a tumble from the stone steps in front of his mother’s house, smashing out two thirds of his baby teeth against the concrete below. When later, one of Mammy’s gentlemen had come a-calling, he’d found the toddler in a howling heap at the foot of the steps. By then, of course, young Ernest had swallowed the lot – along with a half pint of blood – so that for days afterwards his pinkish turds came out studded with milk teeth, like kernels of sweetcorn. For whatever reason, the adult teeth had never quite broken through to fill the spaces, and now his gums were lumpen with unerupted molars. Between his ears there was an absence, too: though he was not yet twenty, he combed an ever-widening parting into his fine, fair hair – as he shuffled about the pipe, his domed scalp caught the light intermittently, and shone like a halo through the feathery gauze.
Ernest’s hands trembled a little as he reached into the bottom of his sleeping bag and from it drew a yellow high-visibility jacket. Or rather, what had once been a high-visibility jacket – now you would have to say that its luminosity was dimmed somewhat by the thick layer of filth which had accumulated, particularly around the seams. He put it on over the clothes he had slept in, lifted the offcut of carpet from the pipe’s entrance, and crawled out into the morning upon his elbows and his knees. Ankle deep in mud and litter, he steadied himself with one hand upon the outside of the pipe. There Ernest stood, watching the steam rise from his beery piss into the cold, lilac air of the pre-dawn. He turned his back on the pipe, and set off picking his way up the hill, huffing and puffing and pulling at loose roots as he did, for to stop himself from slipping. The hill itself was a terrible one for slipping, what with the dew and the mud and all of that: look at the pipe. About five years ago, Mr Selach had been hauling it back to the scrapyard behind his transit, when all of a sudden the chain had snapped and sent the thing bounding off down the hill, flattening everything in its path. Still today, nothing would grow where it had beaten the brambles flush into the soft sod like wooden nails. It had finally come to rest in the mire at the bottom, and there it had squatted ever since – half-submerged in muck at the foot of the hill. Now Mr Selach let them stay in it for nothing, or next to nothing, at least. At the top of the hill, with the steel toe of his boot, Ernest tested the firmness of the ground at his feet. From up here, he had as good a view as any of the muddy hillocks which cankered up about the land, and the wet brown town which puddled like stagnant water at their foothills. He used to live in that puddle, before Mammy went into the hospice. And Eric did, n’all – though he had lived with his missus and the babbee back then. Of course, the hospice shut years ago. And how old would Eric’s little one have been now?
Ernest looked hard at the pile of turned earth by his feet. Yesterday, it had not taken him a quarter hour to dig the hole, and refill it as well. However, the cold night had imbued the mound with an icy solidity, which complicated matters. Beneath it, buried away from eyes that would pry, were the tools which Eric and Ernest had slyly borrowed from the builder’s yard the day before. Last night, as he had pressed the pattern of his rubber soles into the loose soil above their stash, the young man had congratulated himself on this clever piece of subterfuge. Now though, in the cold light of the morning, his keen mind had spotted a flaw. Along with the sledgehammers and the files and the screwdrivers and the saws, he had buried his spade – and now the sod was frozen, hard and dense as rock.
There was nothing else for it. He set about chipping away at the icy cold ground with his naked hands.
IT WAS SLOW GOING, and by the time he had managed to prise up and cart down the gear, he found the pipe was hollow and empty. Not to worry. With a practiced flick, he unfurled a roll of blue tarpaulin, letting it settle softly upon the damp ground. Next, he laid the tools out nicely upon it – smallest to biggest – ready for Eric’s inspection. Whilst he waited for his partner’s arrival, Ernest picked at the dirty cuticle of his thumbnail until it bled a little. He’d been gone a while, by now. Ernest twisted his neck across the land. Finally, two fields over, he picked out Eric: a black smudge against the brown, coming unsteadily up the lane. Struggling, by the looks of it. Before him as he went across the uneven ground, Eric was wresting a knackered old wheelbarrow, heavy with rust. That tire’s flat, thought Ernest, as he watched his friend approach, and wobble, and spill the wheelbarrow’s load across the lane, and get pulled into the ditch after it. That’ll be because the tire’s flat, thought Ernest. Eric fell again. By the time he made it back to the pipe, Eric was in a bad mood for some reason, sopping wet as he was with mud in his moustache from the third and fourth falls. He took a fistful of white bread and a muddy tin of lager from the wheelbarrow and pushed them – hard – into Ernest’s beaming face.
‘Breakfast,’ he said.
They unpacked the food upon the tarpaulin and ate their picnic in silence. Or rather, Ernest ate – Eric said that it was too early for bread by half, and so he would instead content himself with a snifter of the ale. And so, whilst Ernest sat open-mouthed, mashing the milk loaf into a wet paste between his gums, Eric stood with his back to him, holding his head to the left now and then, and gingerly tipping a sip of beer onto the dry doormat of his tongue. Each time he did, he followed it a half-second later with a sharp intake of breath through a mouth like a puckered arsehole.
Ernest wondered if it wasn’t still the balaclavas that were making Eric cross. He had certainly been cross last night. He had sent Ernest off to town yesterday morning with a five-bob note and, it would be fair to say, very detailed instructions. But where did you buy a balaclava? And, at the end of the day, wasn’t a bobby hat and a knitted tea cosy fairly close really, in the grand scheme of things? Sure they were both made of wool. Anyway, Eric hadn’t really seen it that way. Ernest poured lager on top of the pulped bread, and enjoyed the sour tang of the bubbles as they popped on his tongue.
All of a sudden, Eric swung his belly round, and threw down his tin of beer, though Ernest could see from the way it splattered the mud it must have been at least half full. The fat man pointed a stubby finger at Ernest’s nose.
‘I’ll have no more of your bright ideas today,’ he said. ‘No more silly buggers.’
‘I haben’t done owt—’ Ernest spluttered through a mouthful of bread.
‘Mr Selach’s been good to us,’ Eric went on, ‘Not many would have.’
‘Neber said he hasn’t—’
‘Remember, that’s his beer in your belly—’
‘Neber said it wasn’t.’
‘And his bread, n’all.‘
The drink had caused said bread to congeal into a yeasty pebble inside Ernest’s mouth. He twice tried hard to choke it down, until it was forced finally through his gullet and plopped like a brick into the pond of his gut.
‘All I was saying was, he could’ve been nicer about it, is all I was saying.’
‘Well don’t say,’ said Eric.
Ernest looked at his knees. The bread lay heavy in the pit of his stomach.
‘Sorry, Eric,’ he said.
‘You just don’t understand the business world,’ said Eric, ‘Mr Selach is a businessman.’
Ernest thought it was fair enough to say that he had no great insight into the intricacies of high finance. He did, after all, live in a pipe. And it was true too that Selach was a businessman, of sorts. In the town, you could hardly move for his name upon the shopfronts. SELACH’s LAUNDRETTE. SELACH’s FAGS, FOOD AND NON-FOODS. SELACH’s AMERICAN-STYLE TABLE DANCING. SELACH PRESENTS: BUTTYLICIOUS (of which there were not one but two branches, bookending the high street). And outside of the town, just over the hill from their pipe, scabbed the rusty carbuncle in his crown: SELACH’S SCRAP.
When Eric and Ernest had turned up there yesterday morning with two coils of copper cabling around their necks, Selach had slammed the door of his office so hard that the whole portacabin shook. The lapels of his sheepskin jacket billowed out like the wings of some great predatory fish. He had teeth enough – too many, even. They crowded his mouth and doubled up on his gums, some gold, or gold-looking. He had gnashed them then. Wasn’t he a legitimate businessman? He had said. They said that he was. Wasn’t this a legitimate scrap metal dealership? He had said. They said it was. Why then, might he ask, had they brought him reels and reels of copper cabling, stamped all over as it was with sunken lettering that read Property of National Rail? Well, they hadn’t known where to look.
He had seethed and raged about like that for a while: Why do I bother? Why do I continue to stick my neck out, when none else would, for a broken-family man and his pet gonk? Whose drunken crapulence has seen them chucked out of every hostel of good repute, then every hostel of bad repute, around? And when finally, they were pinched and squeezed out of town, like oily sebum from a blackhead, didn’t I give them use of my best pipe for nothing, or next to nothing?
‘I cannot, in good faith, buy this copper,’ he had concluded with finality. ‘Not for full price.’
And with that, he dimped his cigarillo in the scallop shell ashtray on his desk, and smiled at them with two rows of teeth.
Mr Selach had been very nice about it in the end. He had taken it off their hands for half a week’s pipe-rent, which was twice as much as he should have, he said. And he had given them the bread, and the lager, and told them where they could find the tools. And he had put them onto this job, as well.
THERE IS A LOVELINESS to be found in wet brown mornings. The sun was well up now – it burned paper white behind the clouds, touching puddles with gold here and there, where they pitted and pocked the mud. Eric and Ernest followed a fence of wooden weeds up and down and over the hillocks, through land that ought to be common. For a time, a nippy little dunnock took to hopping along the brambles after them, and though Eric and Ernest cared not a jot for his morning song, they made one another laugh by mimicking each trumpeting flourish back at the bird in loud wet raspberries. They settled into a rhythm like this, each one taking his turn with the wheelbarrow, though the younger man’s stints seemed always slightly longer, at least to him. As they walked, Eric gave Ernest the benefit of his knowledge, instructively pointing out some of the local flora for his companion’s edification as they went.
‘Look!’ Eric said. ‘A shrub!’
‘Oh yes,’ said Ernest, sticking his arse out studiously as he bent to give it a closer inspection.
A little later: ‘Look!’ said Eric again. ‘Another shrub!’
There were many shrubs. They stopped now and then, over the course of the morning, for rest and recreation. At around elevenses they came upon a brook, which they thought as good a spot as any to take of their mid-morning refreshment.
Ernest sat like piffy on a rock and made a sandwich by putting two slices of bread around a third. Eric watched on as the young man merrily threw back his head and let the butty slide down his gullet like a seagull. Under his jumper, Eric’s bowels gave a covetous rumble. Quietly, he unzipped the pocket of his tracksuit pants and from it took a loose slice of bread, which he tore in half. He touched it against his tongue, letting the moisture catch the little white crumbs. He opened his mouth as wide as he could, and with his thumb delicately posted the bread as far back as he could upon the roof of his mouth. He pressed the left side of his jaw down once onto the bread. Twice. Upon the third press, a hard shard of crust poked into the naked nerve of his black tooth and sent such a pain shooting down his body that his cock jumped back up inside him and his mouth filled with enough saliva to make him heave. The bread fell from Eric’s open mouth, and landed with a wet slap on the mud.
‘How’s the bad tooth, Eric?’ said Ernest.
‘Fine,’ Eric said. ‘Never you mind.’
Eric held his head between his knees, letting the spit unspool from his bottom lip.
‘You should have a tooth doctor look at that,’ Ernest said.
‘Should I now.’
‘They can do it now, you know. They’ve got tools.’
‘That right, is it?’
‘A knee on your chest and quick yank with his pliers,’ Ernest went on.
‘Swapping a slow pain for a quick ‘un is never a bad deal, Mammy said.’
Eric raised his head.
‘Do you remember that old cedar on your mammy’s street, Ernest?’ he said.
‘She wanted it gone,’ Ernest said. ‘It blocked the light to her window.’
‘A bloody great big tree that was.’
‘She was sick of the sight of the thing, she—’
‘And how you and young Danny MacNally threw a tow around it on your way home from the pub that night, and near flooded his engine trying to pull it from the ground.’
‘—She liked to look out her window,’ said Ernest weakly.
‘If you thought the tree looked big above the street, it was nowt next to what was going on under cobbles. Its roots clenched hard around the houses’ foundations, like a wooden fist of eighty fingers.’
Ernest became suddenly interested in the lettering on his tin.
‘And it came out, Ernest, didn’t it? But it did not come easy, and it did not come alone. Poor Mrs Altaf didn’t know what was going on when the floor fell away beneath her bed and dropped her in her nightie at the bottom of a crater where her living room used to be,’ Eric said. ‘And that’s not even mentioning the Howards and their front porch. And Mr Enderby’s pond, and all those coy carp. And didn’t your poor mammy have to pay for it all in instalments? And her not well.’
Ernest stared hard into the black hole of his tin, and only looked up when Eric tapped his thigh and leant in close so that Ernest could feel the warm breath on his cheek. The fat man lifted his lip, and showed Ernest the knotted lump of calcium that pushed and bulged black and shiny under the angry red flesh on the right side of his gum.
‘These roots run deep,’ Eric said. ‘Sup up, we’re off.’
THEY WERE GETTING close now, which was well enough. Whilst Eric strode off ahead, Ernest threw the weight of his body against the laden wheelbarrow and heaved until his muscles pumped battery acid upon the slope. In his throat – the taste of copper pennies. One final cresting hill and they would be there. Ernest stopped for breath and looked back over his shoulder at the path they had trod in the mud. Fields and fields of patchwork countryside lay now between themselves and the town, so that the ebbing sounds of the traffic’s surf were almost completely lost upon the wind. The clouds had thickened into a heavy leaden soup; the only signs of man’s hand upon the skyline were the intermittent electricity pylons that loomed like gun-metal giants over the landscape.
Ernest changed tack for the last few yards, deciding that he would drag the wheelbarrow backwards up the slope. Upon reaching the summit, he did not therefore immediately realise that it was time to stop climbing. He tripped and an out-jutting root sent such a shock up his coccyx that he almost lost his grip on the wheelbarrow and let it go barrelling off back down the hill. He screwed his face and cringed in anticipation of Eric’s admonishing cuff. When it did not come, he unclosed his eyes, and found his friend quite transfixed – staring up at four floors of lead-lined windows, which stared back, like a hundred sightless eyes: the old hospice.
Though the brown stone edifice had long since emptied, Ernest felt sure they were being watched. Perhaps Eric felt it too, perhaps that was why he reached into the wheelbarrow and from under the tools pulled their makeshift balaclavas. Without looking, he threw one in Ernest’s direction and pulled the other over his face. Eric rolled down the headband as far as it would go, which was not nearly far enough to stop his moustache and everything south of it from remaining more or less exposed. His pompom bobbed in the wind, and he found that the eyeholes they had cut out with scissors were much too close together. He turned to Ernest, who smiled at him weakly through his own woollen mask, his nose poking out through the vertical slit where the teapot’s spout would usually go.
The hospice itself was easy enough to get inside. The building was well out of town; I hadn’t expected anyone would make it that far. And I had littered – littered, mind – their path with signposts: multitudinous signposts, foretelling all manner of grim ends; signposts illustrated with skulls and crosses and exclamatory punctuation. And did they pay heed? Did they buggery. They whistled on by, bouncing off towards the building. I could have made the doors from stone, I suppose. Or turned their tools to fruitcake. I could have sentineled an angelic hoard at the gates, or ringed it with holy fire; I could have broken their legs. But that would be no way to end a story. No, I’m afraid I myself am not entirely without blame. I looked on as the pair approached the entrance. The small padlock fell from the door on the third swing of Eric’s sledgehammer, and clinked upon the gravel drive. In the new dark, their pupils dilated like hungry throats and the contours of the store took shape before their eyes. My mammy, thought Ernest. Such wonders of scrap you have never seen – aluminium and brass and zinc and steel! Their torch lit upon a great mound of hypodermic syringes taller than Eric; the needles sparkled like cut-glass under the bulb, and pricked their eyes with stars. And that was only the beginning. You couldn’t move without tripping over a brushed alloy crutch, or a towering stack of chromed bedpans, or a defibrillator packed to busting with yard upon yard of coppery bright wire. The damp walls sagged under the weight of disability access bars, which hung like low vines heavy with precious fruit. The corridors of the hospice echoed with the sound of their rubber soles slapping excitedly upon the tiles, as the pair ran and danced and leapt with the sheer joy of it all. From the top of the stairwell, they sent plastic sachets of blood splattering down four flights of steps. In the children’s ward, Ernest watched in wonder as Eric sent dry wall spores bursting into the air under the percussive thump of his lump hammer. They pulled off their woollen masks, and in the geriatric wing, sat like kings upon wipe-clean thrones. And they laughed and they laughed.
‘We could sell the lot,’ said Ernest, looking out upon the broken palace. ‘Selach needn’t know; there’s scrap enough here that we could buy our own pipe!’
Eric pulled the crown of paper surgery knickers from his head.
’And to whom would we sell it?’ he said. ‘No, Mr Selach sent us here for one thing, and it’s one thing we’ll bring. Empty your pockets.'
It took them a fair bit of searching before they found what they were after. Ernest ran on ahead, pointing out every yellow sign printed with bold black script whilst Eric followed behind and spoke each aloud in turn.
‘RAY-DEE-OH-LOG-GEE,’ he read finally.
‘What is a radiology, Eric?’ Ernest enquired.
‘A radio is a means of communication. An Ology is a kind of rich Russian.’
In the centre of the room, over a bed of lead, the X-ray machine hung like an arcade’s penny claw waiting to close around its prize. Though its ferrous dials were now rusted, and the glass displays long since cracked and broken, the solid prism of metal and machine still radiated an aura of weighty value. With two hands, Eric brought his sledgehammer roaring over his shoulder in a mighty arc, connecting at its apex with the machine in a shower of flinty sparks.
They beat at it with hammers, and hacked at it with saws. With chisels, they prised it away from its metal moorings, and rocked it back and forth between them until finally the buckled bolts could hold no more, and the thing came down with a hard crack upon the tiles. Through a fissure in the prism’s base, a small reservoir of viscous liquid lit their faces with a soft blue glow.
‘It’s magic,’ said Ernest.
‘Not magic,’ Eric corrected him. ‘Just good science.’
Squatting between Ernest and the machine, Eric stuck a flat-headed screwdriver into the gash and pried open the sides. He turned to face Ernest with a look of terrible gravity, then opened his face into a broad smile which revealed a grille of teeth painted luminous blue with the liquid. Ernest’s mouth fell open with delight. He wet his own thumb in the seeping puddle, and with it painted his eyes up like a tart and commenced to mince around the room. They laughed. They laughed and they laughed, and they did not stop laughing until something fell from Eric’s open mouth and rattled out across the tiles.
Eric stooped to pick it up, then held out his hand for Ernest to see. Though Eric’s palm was shattered with lines of brown filth, the bad tooth stood out bold and black against it. It was big, for a tooth. You could not say it was not big. Even without the roots, which sprouted in every direction like an old potato’s, it was twice the size of most men’s teeth. Eric looked from his bad tooth to Ernest. His smile showed the great gaping cavity the thing had left in his jaw.
They jettisoned the tools and loaded the X-ray machine into the wheelbarrow. It was hard, hot work. A little trail of blood began to weep down the inside of Eric’s throat, tickling at his uvula. As they negotiated the load through the hospice’s front doors, he took the handkerchief from his pocket and coughed wetly into it. Along with the pinkish mucus, he was perturbed to find a healthy white incisor bedded within its lacy folds.
Two more teeth fell out as he helped Ernest push the wheelbarrow up the first hill, and by the time he kneeled retching in the mud a quarter of the way home, his gums were as toothless as his partner’s. Not that Ernest was unchanged. The skin around the young man’s eyes had blackened and cracked, and what hair he had had now rested like fallen snow upon the shoulders of his high-vis jacket. Bald as a brown-speckled egg, he looked to Eric with the face of a wizened new-born.
‘What’s happening, Eric?’ he said, or rather slurred. The musculature on the left side of his face collapsed, as though its elastic had been snipped suddenly with nail scissors.
The progress of their return journey was much slower than it had been on the way out, and the weight of the X-ray machine alone could not be blamed. The sky bruised purple like a rotten orange above them. When Ernest tripped over his feet and cascaded like a rag doll down one of the slopes it upped their average speed a bit, but it was to little avail.
‘We’ll have to leave it here,’ Eric said finally. ‘If he wants it, Selach can fetch it himself.’
From a puddle, Ernest looked up at him, wet mud running from his nose.
‘Won’t he be cross with us?’ he said.
Eric heaved up the handles of the wheelbarrow and poured out the X-ray machine over the precipice. Broken glass rattled within it as it bounded off down the hill, before finally coming to rest in the mire at the bottom.
‘He’ll have a job,’ Eric replied, as they watched it sink in the mud.
With their burden shed, they made better time. The pair took turns carrying one another in the wheelbarrow, changing places when either’s body became too emptied by exhaustion. Though this time it was Eric who did the greater share of the lifting. Indeed, over the final few hillocks he alone pushed the wheelbarrow, while Ernest mewed wetly from its cradle.
Perhaps it was because the sun had left them, but Ernest found that he could see little by the time they made it back to the pipe. He felt Eric’s big hands lift him tenderly under his knees and his neck. As the older man carried him over the empty tins which littered the mud around their pipe, Eric found with surprise that for a time now he had forgotten his powerful thirst.
Neither man had the strength to climb up the pipe’s steep banks by then, so instead Eric splayed both their sleeping bags and tucked them in. They lay, cramped up together, at the pipe’s lowest point. The only sound for miles around was the pair’s uneven breathing.
‘Eric,’ said Ernest. ‘Eric,’ he said.
Eric opened his eyes to see his friend drawing a tight fist of closed fingers from the pocket of his jacket. Slowly, like the petals of a waterlily, he opened them – and let the teeth he had held rattle gently upon the pipe’s metal.
‘You saved them up,’ said Eric.
‘I did that,’ said Ernest.
Milk teeth and molars, small and big and cracked and whole. Teeth of many shades and of many hues, of white and cream and brown and black – just one tooth of black, in the middle, almost lost under the others. Just a little pile it was, no more than a fistful, but still, not so small when pooled together like this. With the palm of his hand, Eric pushed flat the pile so that they might better count up their stock, and share it out evenly between them. Eric said the numbers aloud while Ernest lay and listened. But the counting made them drowsy, and before they were even halfway done, the pair’s eyes had closed, and they were dead to the world in each other’s arms.