Short Fiction ~ Patrick Williamson
The world I inhabit seems limited to a set pattern of paths and roads. Going to the bus stop, coming back, the supermarket and back, making a beeline for a pub and staggering carefully home. It takes effort to go further than the edge of the known world. It makes me tired. I begin to ask myself questions like why, and what's the point, and I don't really belong here do I? Then I become lost in the immensity of it all.
We live in one of these Georgian terraced streets that personify the city, in a house at the end, between two being done up. Where builders have taken over the front garden, filled it with dust and chaos. And when I say we I don't mean her & I; I mean the two of us. Not my wife, let me rule that one out straight away, I've never married, never will. Too late for that now you might say. I'm someone people remark on, poor old… what must have happened to him when he was young, etc.
No, I mean the downstairs neighbour and myself. My neighbour I'll call him, to preserve anonymity. Tenants are usually just that, occupants. My neighbour has a front tooth missing, the others cracked and nicotine stained. Not prepossessing. Thinning hair and usually two to three days growth. A designer beard you might say. His front room is sparsely furnished, with badly varnished brown thirties furniture, a threadbare carpet, dank shelving along the sidewall. A perpetual gloom hides the corners, the damp wallpaper, the tiled kitchen entrance.
We would play chess, in the afternoon mainly, to while away the time in winter, and keep thoughts from straying. As we played, we could feel the wind and the rain outside and this would make us feel cosy. The twilight would permeate our concentration and consciousness of the outside world we had stifled. Finally, he would get up, switch on the yellowing lamp that brought out the decrepit walls and draw the curtains over leaves brushing street lamps, their light casting shadows on the paving. We would stretch. He would get some tea, clanking in the kitchen.
I thought she was. She wore a white mackintosh and a small low-slung handbag and might have been respectable if it wasn't for a pale drained face and cropped hair. My head turned as she passed because, whisky or not, she looked familiar. I saw her negotiate crossing the road. Caught on the centre line — the lights changed too fast — then straight to a 24hr minicab office, she poked her head round the door.
I watched her, thinking it unusual. She waited outside. Shortly, a tall black man came out & she followed him round the corner of the office, out of sight. I retraced my steps. A taxicab was parked in the shadows, they moved off & she sat in the back.
Night, and the cars I watched moving down the wide city street all became taxicabs with fares. I swerved towards my destination. Sunk into my drink, I began to forget.
Full of whiskies, I started to walk home, and she passed again, caught my eye. She couldn't have been a customer then, I thought. I hadn't seen her that long ago and if she were taking a taxi home she wouldn't be passing now. I thought this was logical. She walked faster than I did, briskly, paying no attention to the night-time streets. She wasn't looking for business and didn't attract any, no cars slowed down. Drawing away from me fumbling with thoughts such as these, she merged into the neon. Then she vanished, twisting down a residential side street.
When her body was found at the bottom of our garden, conjecture about her life, or anything really, became immaterial. I was out at the time, gone up the high street, stopped off in a strange pub until closing, and when I came back I found a crowd of onlookers outside the house plus police cars, marked, and unmarked. It sounds corny to say it happened like that, like in the films, but then it did and I didn't really believe it was our house they were interested in, and walked on up to the front door. Then a policeman stopped me and I had to say I lived there and ask what all the fuss was about.
The policeman who interviewed me was quite ordinary, asked all the normal questions. The normal ones I suppose. If you haven't been in a situation like this before, you've only got the TV to go on. My movements, if I had seen anything out of the ordinary, details about how long I had been living there, age, profession, etc. Information I don't normally like to give out. Don't like being asked too many questions. He didn't give me much in the way of answers either. Just routine verification of occupants, first line of gathering. I felt quite detached, though his eyes flickered from time to time. Maybe it was the drink, maybe the blue flashing lights, maybe the sobering hand of crime and authority.
She had been strangled. The newspapers said, and the police said, later. Dumped in the brambles by the wall backing onto the alley. It's quite a high wall, so she must have been rolled over. Taken a strong, or desperate, man to do that, or two men, but this, they say, has been discounted.
This was sometime after the sighting at the minicab office. We had almost bumped into each other (I had my collar turned up, against the November wind), but just in the nick of time we avoided contact. The way pedestrians in a crowded street, moving fast, always manage to. It was almost too, as, turning round to watch her retreating back, I thought about catching her up and asking what she did. I was curious you see.
Do you think I'm exaggerating things, or imagining, or exaggerating what I imagined then? No, you must be mistaken. I’m not the kind of man to be fanciful, I must be a man mustn’t I. The whiskies and all that and the interest. Well, you’re right, I am a man. That explains many things doesn’t it. That's why the ideas kept coming back, lives in the small hours. The darkness makes you feel strong, with only the radio voices of the world for company.
My neighbour saw me from the doorway, but didn't move. He saw me bend her over the sink and was afraid because I was so, because it was so, powerful, I think. The desire to see. Then he was afraid because he had done nothing and there was no excuse. No way to undo duty to rescue, I think you call it. Collusion. Everybody's at it. I don’t see why he should think himself any different.
You know how it is when you're never satisfied with the answers you've been given. I had lured her. You want to take them by the throat and, what else? The impulse is dealt with, and all that remains is.
We did not speak much. Lifted her body out from the corner by the kitchen cabinets, off the floor. Automatically moved the body onto the sofa, face turned away (as if she'd had too much to drink, as if she was sleeping it off), sunken into armchairs, facing the floor. We tasted the coldness of the tea. So where are the answers to your questions, and what questions did I ask but not be patient enough to hear?
The small hours when bodies slip out unseen & slip into darkness. I looked up at my neighbour, then at the bare bulb, and wondered which one looked yellow and which one grey. In the shadows, a sense of urgency but no will. I kicked him on his foot to jolt him out of his stupor and went to search for a piece of cloth to cover her face. Temporary like, no point giving away what you don't have to. Anyway, what was she going to do with it. That was for us not her, not for the police either. But they'd certainly have a use for it. I found something in the kitchen, placed it over her face to stop her staring. But it didn’t stop it, not really. I didn’t see anything then. Only later. Only when we were back inside.
Lifting her onto our shoulders we moved on out, treading the dirt into the hall carpet, peering left and right into the sombre street. Just like good children do before they cross the road, the green cross code. Swiftly, we turned in to the safety of the alleyway leading to the back. Away from any windows lonely insomniacs might be standing at. We did not plan. You don't. We hadn't planned from the start. It just seemed simple. Keep movement to a minimum. There was just a slight crush of bushes, and we held our breath, crept away. Somewhere, a dog barked.
A high-pitched sound. I was already awake. Had been by six, curtains drawn, sat at my desk. The coldness, stillness, the shutting out. This didn't fit. Couldn't think. I couldn't tell you and if I could, I wouldn't. Through a corner of curtain pulled aside I saw her advancing inexorably up the garden. She would get there by coffee time; the undergrowth was thick but not too much for her stripper. Time. That's all that's left, watch.
Another occupant cutting down, clearing. Only she would start on it.
The phone. I didn't hear any more buzzing, only her Portuguese fog horning up through her window. The front door slammed. I reached for the whisky bottle & slept, the grey light cracking my ropey orange curtain.
Patrick Williamson : English writer and translator. Editor and translator of The Parley Tree, Poets from French-speaking Africa and the Arab World (Arc Publications) and translator of Tahar Bekri, Guido Cupani and Erri de Luca. Most recent poetry collection is Traversi (English-Italian, Samuele Editore, 2018). He is also active in music, filmpoems (Afterwords, with Mauro Coceano) and other multimedia projects, often in association with Transignum in France. Founding member of transnational literary agency Linguafranca.