short stories


a short story by
noinvisiblehand
Ian James McAdam 2009

The town’s police station is a nineteen-seventies concrete mess. I had never been inside it before, and was still not sure why Michael Jones had asked me to come along that day. It was a call out of the blue, and we hadn’t spoken apart from the occasional hello and wave on the street for more than twenty-five years. The blue painted door creaked as I entered dubiously.

Was this to be the last lie ever told. before we speak, allow us to clarify. for this the ninth millionth time. no hyperbole. my views. your perspectives.

Michael saw me and walked towards me, ‘This is serious,’ he said, leading me into an interview room where a uniformed woman officer was sitting, taking me in, and writing down her observations.
I said, ‘Michael, I thought this was a social visit…’
‘There’s not the time,’ he said.
‘But there has to be the time. You said on the phone you were fascinated by my civic plans. You’ve never paid them much attention before. I should have known you were up to your shenanigans again…’ My voice trailed off, faint echos taunting me in the enclosed space.

You took another drag from another cheap cigarette, the smoke acrid and over-burnt and sticking to my hair. The air was heavy and stale, getting murkier as the second hand ticked (ticks which rebound to this godforsaken day) loudly and you regarded me stonily, giving everything and nothing away, just as you’d done as a child.

‘I never thought it would be you,’ you said, ‘but everything now points to you. Your way of thinking — and I know how you think and behave better than anyone else. Your intelligence has let you think you are above everyone else. But you forgot me. You forgot your childhood. Do you remember where you first crossed the line?’

You stared at me and all the way through, the air conditioner making the room hotter, hotter. I noticed your sweat moistening your pink shirt’s underarms and chest to a rich crimson hue…blood coursing through… everything at that moment seemed surreal and stayed that way. More in relief, more painted on by the fluorescent light being mirrored down by the up-there suspension. I stared at the fish lines the line was suspended from, next to the rotating fan, up above his head . I willed the gut to snap suddenly, shatter the whole fixture into scissoring shards over his head. I still had no idea for what reason I was there, but of one thing I was certain: I was going to be grilled, and if I remembered him, it would be a long and hard grilling, just like when we used to play cops and robbers.

I still can’t help my childhood. It has passed. I am an adult now, doing adult things.

He asked me: ‘Can you tell me about those dreams you used to have?’
‘Can you please tell me what this is all about, Michael?’
‘Constable,’ he said, ‘Will you please read Mr Barnard his rights.’

This was duly done. Then you and I had a conversation which I cannot for the life of me remember. You stared at me for a good few minutes, smoking your third cigarette, until you cleared your throat and asked:
‘So are you going to tell me about that recurring dream you used to have, Michael?’
He smiled briefly, displaying his nicotine stained teeth, and continued,’ The one you used to tell me about, where you suddenly realized you were a killer, and the police catch up with you.’
‘It was only a dream, for God’s sake,’ I said, unable to hide my exasperation, as much as I wanted to appear calm and collected.
‘Dreams and reality march very closely together, Michael.’
‘Yes, Andrew, they are flip-sides of each other. You dream what you know and what you can tangibly fantasize. The reality is for realizing those fantasies.’
‘Oh, I forgot. I heard that you studied psychology in university. You must have been very taken with the Jungian mumbo jumbo.’

The constable was writing this ridiculous conversation down, seemingly keeping one eye on me and the other on what she’s writing. Michael smokes and watches me, feigning impassiveness while I know he’s trying to reel me in, get me back for hitting his puppy with my dad’s car when we were almost teenagers.

It was my madcap idea — it was getting dark, and Michael needed to be home for dinner in two minutes. My father was busy reading his newspaper with his feet up, drinking a beer, and getting ready for the Arsenal Chelsea match on the telly. There was no way he’d give you a lift home… not in a million years.

I found myself in the past. some kind of time shift, even although I desperately needed to be in the present. too stuck. too unaware of malice. snakes in the grass. I was too taken with memory. memory was not going to save me. just catch me me out and taunt me.

So you coaxed me, as only a more popular boy can coax a less popular one, and we snuck into my father’s car. Your puppy, the dog you’d been asking for since you were tiny, was following us, but we wouldn’t let her into the car because she still had muddy paws from the game of frisbee we had earlier played in the still sodden park.

‘That dream, Michael, was just what it was,’ I said to kill the silence and to stop the silence which was forcing me to reminisce on less than happy memories.
‘It might be, it might not be. Often, people tell you something they say is a dream but it’s actually made up, or is a fantasy they long to live out.’
‘But that was a teenage dream which recurred for three or four years. I don’t even remember my dreams any more.’
‘As you know, you’re here for questioning. The law says I have twenty four hours. But if you cooperate by starting to recount that dream as requested, you might be out of here in an hour.’

An hour! I had honestly expected at least a cup of tea, some biscuits, a chat about this and that. To have been arrested on suspicion of murder… that demanded a five tier cake! I was beyond words as we stared, stared some more, put more bad atmosphere into the smoky room. It was now that I wished I’d never given up the dirty habit. A cigarette would have eased the tension. Only for a moment, sure, but it would have been a very much appreciated moment nonetheless. And again, he was back at it, like a dog with a bone;
‘Tell me about the dream.’

The dream. It recurred for years — even now, I still have hints of it, which bring me instantly to wakefulness and a cold, clammy reality.

‘Remind me on what grounds I’ve been arrested.’
‘You’ve been arrested for the torture and false imprisonment of Gordon Norris. Are you going to tell us this dream?’
‘You’ve heard it before.’
‘And I’ll hear it again.’

I had to give in. my breathing was rapid, poorly controlled. This was worse than the dream had ever been. I had to give in. I wanted out that room so badly.

‘Okay, Michael, I’ll tell you, if only to get out of here sooner. I think this dream started when puberty began, just after I had turned twelve years old,’ I said, my voice trembling against my best efforts to stop it from doing so.

The fan above our heads spun lazily, wisping your cigarette smoke into a horizontal plane, blue-grey, hazy.

I continued…

In this dream, which recurred almost nightly at first, then petered downwards slowly until the age of seventeen, I was a fully grown man having a flashback to something I’d done on the cusp of manhood. I don’t remember the details exactly, but it goes something along the lines that I was living as home help for an old guy who needed me to help refurbish the property, re-landscape the garden and cook his evening meal, which we’d eat together every weeknight. For a no reason at all, I killed him and buried him deep beneath the landscaped rockery. I then left with a briefcase of cash I’d found under his bed (only after I’d murdered him). The dream then flashes forward a substantial amount of time — fifteen years, at most. At that time I was running my own landscaping business. I had mentally blocked out the memory, and had no idea I’d done something so terrible in my past. One day, my business partner — Jimmy, and I were working on a garden which needed its rockery redone. As we got there I had a flashback to all those years before and my head spun. I said to Jimmy: “I know this place.” When I first had the dream — and I remember this very clearly — I woke up at this point. I was shocked and horrified because I woke up with an erection (I told you about this, Michael), but as soon as I caught up with reality, it flattened like a dropped souffle…

At this point I stopped, my mouth dry from the overbearing heat in the interrogation room. It’s a waiting game, I was aware, and you had to offer me a glass of water before I asked for one.

‘So that was how it was the first time you had the dream?’
‘The first time I remember having it.’
‘And you were how old at the time?’
‘About twelve and a half.’
‘Earlier you’d said you’d just turned twelve.’
‘For God’s sake, Michael. I was about twelve, around there, that’s the best I can remember.’

I flashed back again to that day with you dog, me behind the wheel of my father’s car while you ran around trying to catch the muddy dog so that you could hold her and prevent her muddying the upholstery.

We didn’t get very far, I didn’t get the chance to get out of reverse. As I turned the key I accidentally pushed on the accelerator and for a reason we never managed to understand(both mom and dad refused culpability), the car was already in reverse gear and moved backwards until there was a crunch and the car stopped. I heard a high pitched mewling noise and jumped out of the car, and there, under the real wheels of the car, was the dog, and Michael was holding her head, stricken with grief…

as I looked into his eyes in that tiny interrogation room, I saw grief unresolved. To grieve forever for a dog, surely impossible, I thought. The situation was clarifying inside my head. This was revenge, And revenge is a dish best served cold, I’ve always been told.

Our friendship, after the dog had been buried at the back of your family home (mum had sent me along with a box of Milk Tray, which I’d been temted to eat along the way. That afternoon, after rose petals had been sprinkled over the mound of earth marking where the dog had been buried. Later that night, after his parents had gone to bed and we were up for high shenanigans, I told you about my dream and you made me repeat it, time after time, just like you’d asked me to do that other thing we’d started to do when puberty was hinting.

I knew in your bedroom that night that our friendship was spent. My conclusions were proved right when you called less and less frequently after that night, and ignored as far as you could at school. It wasn’t long before were off to different high schools, and lost contact, apart from the occasional meeting on the street (we only lived three blocks away from each other) where we’d update each other on our progress.

In that small, enclosed interrogation room, the blood was rushing to m,y head, making my nostrils flare and my eyes, I’m sure, appear manic. I broke the silence.
‘It’s about the fucking dog!’ I said, with venom, I hoped.

The constables expression remained deadpan, almost as if she had botox injections. You, too, remained impassive

Lazily, you said: ‘The dog? You mean Fudge, the Jack Russel you squashed with your father’s car when we were twelve? Come on, that’s more than twenty-five years ago. You think I’d hold onto something for that long? I’m a police officer, not your local madman effing and blinding this and that.’

I was speechless. I’ve never been as dry in the mouth as I was then, utterly aghast at how hopeless things seemed.

‘Are you ready to tell us the rest of the dream, Andrew?’
‘I’ve told you the crux of it. The remainder of it is very much like what is happening to me right now.’
‘You could just summarise it.’
‘Fine, then let me summarise as briefly as I can. We dig up the rockery, find a body, the police interrogate me and finally, it’s DNA which gets me convicted of the old man’s murder.’

“Ah, yes, talking of DNA — you don’t mind giving us a sample, as every arrested person has to do?’

The constable brought out a cotton swab, just like the ones I’d seen a thousand times on the telly.
‘If you’ll just open your mouth,’ she said, and I complied, knowing I had nothing to hide.

Nothing to hide! It was after I’d given the DNA sample that Inspector Jones(he’s had a meteoric rise through the local police force) let me back out onto the street — I’d been in that room for almost three hours, and the bright summer sun hurt my eyes. A heated room in the middle of summer, and him smoking despite the smoking ban! Something very fishy was going on, and I walked down to the library to take a look at the newspaper archive. In retrospect, if I had a choice of what do do then over again. I’d be trying everything to find a criminal lawyer.

When I googled Gordon Norris, an article in the day before’s issue our local paper caught my attention (I curse now my strange ignorance of local issues, seeing as I worked for the local council).

NEW SUSPECT IN UNSOLVED MURDER MYSTERY
Police in Shirley have a new suspect in the murder of Gordon Norris, who was murdered in 1994.
Mr Norris, who was a retired architect, was found under his garden rockery in 2005 when his family was re-landscaping the garden. Up until that time he had been missing.
This is the first suspect the police have found, but they will not release his name until a DNA test clears or incriminates him.

Two days later, as I was driving my children to school, Jones drove up behind me with his siren blaring. I knew the game was up.

My lawyer tells me my appeal has little chance of succeeding.

The plane tree stands firmly before the house more deeply embedded in the rocky soil than the house could ever be; more green than the house but for that the house was once my home and once Mum had green curtains across each street facing window.

That the house is still there is a miracle, that there’s still the tree though more gnarled and more woody is doubly surprising. The house jars now with its brand new middle class Tony Blairised neighbours although it is now undoubtedly middle class, not like it was when it was Mum’s den of inequity.

Little red brick house with friendly back yard where fairytales were obvious and magnolias where bright where Mum grew her spinach which I’d never eat sitting from six to eight at the dinner table the lamb cutlets and mash would be gone but not the spinach. “Bed!” Bed. Bedtime sory of the bears eating…sleep. Woken sometimes by strange sounds but still – sleep – school in the morning.

Teacher big red hair and long talon nails (I wish the bears would eat you I want to be home with Mum and hugs). Teacher glaring at me with non-care, with hatred almost, even tho I’s clever and always did my homework and always answered questions with perfect accuracy still the hate.

Teacher with beg red hair and long talon nails her husband visited Mum, you now know.

That the tree should be such a bastion and grow so steadfastly strong surprises me now as I contemplate once being six. Ah well… Mum’s dead and me thirsty.

The public house (white walls dirty) hard lived faces with pint or plonk or cheap smelly liquor and nasty little barflies drowning in my pint. I always walked past here on my way to school, but never went in. I was too young and taken away before the thought could even cross my mind. Now that the thought’s crossed my mind I’m thirty two and quite able to handle a drink or ten. (Twenty drinks later—then I’m the guy you tut at on the late night street).

The little local—crowded this Easter Monday typical British way of being the local’s more home than your sex filled bedroom, as I’m sure Mum could testify from her grave I’v just visited up the road. Psychedelic purple and yellow Tulips like the ones in Regent’s part at springtime. Me and the pastor burying her, what a famous farewell, no Elton John singing a hackneyed song esp for someone else. Small tine criminals never get grand tributes.

Teacher, small and hunched grey and wrinkled smoking a Superking sittting on a barstool and drinking gin and tonic sees me and smiles. “I’m sorry I judged you because of yourt mother, that whoring bitch!” she says, with venom. It is half an aopology, at least.

FIN

It is a carbon saving decision on Jeff’s part. All his life he’s jetted here and there, but after seeing firsthand, in June, the perilous state of the Arctic ice sheets, he has made the decision that air travel is something that should be relegated to the history books. His friends and associates had laughed cynically at his uncharacteristic decision.

 He is travelling to the Scottish Highlands to do his skiing this Christmas and New Year, and is pleased to see, from his morning weather check, that the snow thickness is the best it has been for years. At least he won’t be referring to his Italian phrase books again this year. Sure, the Grampians aren’t the Italian Alps, but they’re closer to London, easier to get to, and cheaper to enjoy. It isn’t, though, an entirely practical decision. That his ex wife got the job of carbon recapture scientist for the Department of the Environment was a shock to him, considering he had laughed at her when she told him she had applied for the job. That she had to move to bloody Inverness was a true crusher, which took his two young daughters away from London. He’s looking forward to meeting Anne and Jennie again, he hasn’t seen them since the divorce was finalised two weeks ago.

He makes his way along the people congested (almost everyone wearing grey and dowdy coats) platform, towards carriage D and notices that the train is called The Euston Flyer. Naff, he thinks. In front of him are two young Scottish women, talking in sing song Glasgow accents, with wide hips and big backsides swaying precariously on stiletto heels. They are red cheeked, giggling and exhaling steam in the cold early morning light. The overhead power cables have that sharp, acrid electric smell mixed in with the damp winter air. He steps up onto the carriage into the centrally heated standard class carriage and notices that the fabric on the seats looks a little shabby. There is a faint whiff of disinfectant that he is sure will fade after the carriage fills up. He hopes the fluorescent lighting won’t give him a headache – the ones in the office are a real killer. Still, he reassures himself, it’s only a five-hour journey, and no foot tapping waiting about in departure halls or mind numbing data reconfiguration in front of a plasma screen.

He buries his nose in the Christmas Eve edition of The Times as a suited man, smelling of citrus and sporting holly motifs on his tie, sits down opposite him and sets up his laptop. Jeff sighs, wondering why on earth technology has to be so ubiquitous, and just as he thinks this, a group of 3 i-podded youths sit at the table on the other side of the aisle. They’re talking excitedly about how hot Girls Aloud looked last night. Jeff suddenly feels much older than thirty-two.

The news in the paper is dire (it’s the economy, stupid), so he flicks back to the sports pages to see how Arsenal have been punished for losing their game last night. Living with a bird’s eye view of the Emirates stadium is no coincidence. He takes a special, somewhat obsessive, interest in their progress. He is distracted when a heavily pregnant woman asks him to move so she can get onto the window seat. She is wearing a dowdy fisherman’s sweater but despite this looks radiant and blissfully content. Her green eyes smile at him and he smiles back, conscious of the tooth he chipped on the choc chip cookie he had for breakfast. She takes out a notebook and begins scribbling away.

He gets back to the sport pages as the train announces its departure and slips away from the sixties monstrosity that is Euston Station, lulling him into a shallow sleep. The dirty city haze gives was to clear blue skies. The ticket inspector who clips his ticket awakes him. Jeff notices that the man’s hands are stained by strange purple ink. He is surprised to have fallen asleep, but that can be blamed on his late night with Frank and Ralph last night. Those Christmas holiday drinks always get him in the mood for the festivities, part and parcel of routine and tradition.

He turns to the editorial page and is very surprised to see that the letter he sent to the paper last week regarding the Simon Cowell factor on the music industry has been published. He’s been writing letters to newspapers since he was twenty-one and never been published. To see his name in print gives him a sense of empowerment. “Why is it that music is no longer about the feeling but about the sound, which is super compacted, and over produced? Simon Cowell claims that he is a cultural man, but how can a cultural man claim that El Divo are anything else but a karaoke band who murder tired old songs? The X Factor, I am loath to say, do not encourage creativity. Instead, the contestants seem to be forced into moulds that they have no choice in manufacturing. Take the artist out of the creative process, and you can only call them a machine…”

 The drinks and snacks trolley comes along and Jeff pays for a coffee and cheese and ham croissant.

‘You don’t have anything smaller than ten pounds, do you sir?’ the vendor asks in a Jamaican accent.

‘Sorry,’ Jeff says, ‘I don’t. But tell you what, it’s Christmas, why don’t you keep the change?’

‘Thank you sir, much appreciated, and a happy Christmas to you too,’ the vendor smiles, revealing a gold incisor.

‘That was very kind of you,’ says the pregnant woman sitting next to him, rounded vowels in a soft Welsh accent.

‘Really, it was nothing. I didn’t want to deplete his change supplies. Are you sure you’re comfortable with me sitting next to you? These seats aren’t particularly spacious and there’s a free set of seats I can move to at the front of the carriage.’

‘Don’t be silly. I’m fine with you next to me, plus, its nicer for you to sit at a table seat where you can put your coffee and newspaper.’

He takes a sip on his coffee and winces.

The suited man opposite him chuckles: ‘First time for train coffee, ay?’

‘Is that how they recycle their old oil?’ is the best response Jeff can muster.

Behind them, a prim woman with a little dachshund puppy says to them, eyebrows aquiver, ‘Please folks, keep it a little quieter, this is the quiet carriage, in case you didn’t notice.’

‘Sorry,’ they all mutter, and Jeff gets back to his newspaper, finding out that his stock portfolio, pension fund and overseas Euro bank accounts have lost yet more of their value. He tries to suppress the sigh but it still escapes. Last Christmas he and his family were on his brother’s Lear jet to Milan. Now that his brother’s luxury airline has gone south, the Lear jet is but a poignant memory and his brother is living with him in his little pad. Never, they’d both laughed when Jeff got home at two o’clock this morning, not even in a million years, they giggled, sipping Tesco champagne, had they seen that one coming.

He suddenly gets a whiff of nutmeg, cinnamon, and fruit and hears crinkling paper. The pregnant woman is opening a package and already he’s guessing that it’s mince pie.

‘Fancy one,’ she whispers in his ear, ‘to go with your gourmet coffee?’

‘’Why thank you,’ he says, taking a tiny pie from the proffered package and popping it in his mouth.

The taste! The last time he’d tasted a mince pie like that was at his late grandmother’s house in 1984. He is tempted to take another as the festive-tied businessman quickly wolfs one down.

‘That was delicious,’ Jeff says quietly.

‘Yes, I know, it’s made by the Lambeth Co-operative for the Salvation Army’s Christmas charity drive. I hear that the philosophy is that the tastier the mince pie, the more generous the donations of the beneficiaries. I was lucky to get hold of some! They were in hot demand among the representatives on the Co-Operative development board. Talk about trends, ay?’

Jeff smiles dubiously. This co-operative malarkey! What in the world is she on about?

‘Yes, trends,’ he mutters and turns back to the funny pages of the paper. He can’t concentrate though because there are a group of dubious looking people drinking super strength lager, and bigging up their conversation, a few rows behind him. He’s never travelled with people like this before and finds their pre midday drinking distasteful. It’s something you’d expect on a park bench, not on the first train on Christmas Eve. Still, he can’t help smiling at the red and green pixie-like beanies they are all wearing – at least they’re in the festive spirit, and maybe, he reasons, this morning drinking thing is part of their festive routine. He’s tempted, in fact, to have a beer himself, but no… he can’t meet his daughters smelling of alcohol.

The train is speeding through the English countryside, and Jeff must admit he’s getting a better feel for the lie of the land than he ever has from a plane or the M6 motorway. The winter fields are bare of crops except for some weird yellow plants, which he lazily assumes must be rapeseed. He drifts back into a movement-induced slumber. He is brought back from sleep by guffawing laughs from the lager louts. He adjusts his eyes to the artificial light and looks behind him. The snooty lady’s dachshund has done his business in the aisle, causing mirth among the drinkers who are poking jibes as the dog’s owner quickly scoops the doggy doo into a plastic bag. ‘Savin that for ya Christmas puddin, luv…’ He looks at his watch and notices that the train is more than halfway to Glasgow. The only stop is at Preston in the Lake District, which a cheerful Yorkshire man announces over the public announcement system, is only half an hour away.

He remembers suddenly that he needs to make an appointment to have his tooth repaired. He takes out his phone and walks out of the quiet carriage, dialling directory information for the numbers of a few dentists in central Glasgow. He manages to make an emergency appointment and then calls his ex wife to ask her to drop the girls at the hotel two hours later. She reluctantly agrees, annoyed that she has to modify her Christmas Eve plans. It is then that he hears an ear splitting scream from his carriage.

He rushes back to see what is going on. The pregnant lady, he realises with a shock, has gone into labour, and the I-pod wearing youths are looking at her agog. He rushes to her.

 ‘My God,’ she says to him, ‘This is my third, and I think it’s going to be quick!’

‘Anybody a doctor?’ he yells across the carriage, ‘There’s a lady gone into labour over here!’ He cannot help but feel ill as he notices that her waters have broken onto the mottled grey acrylic carpet.

‘Yes,’ says one of the lager drinking beanie-wearing men he disapproved of earlier, ‘and to make it ever more of a co-incidence, I’m a paediatrician!’

He comes over and Jeff asks him, quietly, ‘You sure you’re sober enough to cope with this?’

‘Don’t be silly. It’s not like driving a car. Also, I’ve helped deliver two hundred and ninety six babies, so anything thrown at me, I can cope with!’

He goes over to the woman in labour and asks: ‘What’s your name, love?’

‘Justine,’ she says, her face running with sweat and grimaced, ‘and this baby wants to come out super fast.’

‘I’m Danny, a doctor, and after we’ve spoken to the conductor, we’re going to get you ready to have this baby.’

Ten minutes later, in the middle of the aisle in carriage D, a baby girl is born. For Jeff, it is an eye-opener, because even although he was at his ex wife’s side for the birth of both their daughters, he always avoided a bird’s eye view. This time though, he had no choice, as Danny needed him to sterilise a knife with a lighter, get him a towel for swaddling, and hold the freshly emerged baby while the umbilical chord was cut.

 ‘Are you okay, Justine?’ he asks

‘I’m just fine,’ she says, smiling as she is handed her freshly swaddled baby. Just then the train arrives at Preston.

Two paramedics rush on, lift Justine and her baby onto a stretcher, congratulate Danny, and rush mother and child off the train. ‘Bye,’ Justine says, smiling proudly. Only now Jeff remembers the story his brother was telling him last night…about his summer holiday on the Western Scottish Islands, an isolated, self-sufficient community who brewed their own alcohol, and a whirlwind romance with a Welsh woman with the clearest green eyes. It can’t be, he thinks.

 Is it possible, he wonders, that I just aided in the fastest ever delivery in the records of Virgin Trains, perhaps in British medical history, and that the baby, quirkily, was actually my niece? It is at this moment on Christmas Eve 2008 that carriage D on the Pendolino Express is truly a quiet coach, apart from a yap from the dachshund. Jeff turns and glares at the prissy lady. She smiles at him and says: ‘Do you want to come and sit next to me?’

Jeff relocates himself, his skis, and luggage to carriage E. Something is just not right about the Quiet Coach. And he will have that beer, after all.

FIN