Short Fiction ~ Alan McCormick
The world in mustard hue, sun toxic, sky sulphurous, the dying of light. I come with two others, the last three standing. Frances manages to find enough water for us, has kept some tea back, scraped and rinsed mould from the dry leaves, and even has a jug of coffee warming on a portable gas burner. We’ll share it out, every last drop.
Mildred’s teahouse has stood in the middle of town long before I was born. It’s been through several re-vamps but has settled into its final incarnation for as long as I can remember: the bright breezy posters extoling good health and civic responsibility – ‘Don’t waste’, ‘Think before you litter’, ‘Visit your elderly neighbour with kindness and laughter’ – the tired jukebox playing old sixties and seventies songs, the same cheery satin wallpaper with forest animals in reverie chasing each other’s tails through the trees. For a long time, it existed as an outsiders’ community centre: lonely old people, young Mums with babies, poetically inclined teenagers (us bookish geeks) who rejected the local coffee chains and hipster cafes for somewhere that wasn’t trying too hard to be anything, it just was.
It‘s been run by an ex nun called Frances ever since her companion Mildred died, and tonight she beckons us in, locks the door and closes the blinds as soon as we’re safely inside, clusters of thunder dropping in the neighbouring valley rattling the windowpanes, sending plumes of charring smoke to smother the clouds. Soon they’ll be coming.
Frances speaks first: ‘I won’t ask you to pray, there’s no time for that. Just reach out to the person next to you and give them a hug.’
I hug old Bill Masterson; even though I’ve hated him since he aimed a shotgun at my friends and me when we were teenagers. We’d let down the tyres on his lorry because he was a bigot and was known to be cruel to his animals. But here he is up close, the stench of fear sweated through his shirt. I feel a tremble deep in the bones of his chest, a cool dampness on the skin of his arms, the weakening of what was once surely a fierce hand grip before he steps back and looks at me with small clear blue eyes and says ‘thank you, I’ve not felt another so close in years.’ A speckle of dried spit tacks like rubber onto the corner of his mouth.
‘How are you doing, Mister Masterson?’
His eyes narrow as he scrutinises me. I can tell he finds me familiar but can’t quite place me. It was years since he aimed the shotgun and I’d grown up, been away to university, and had only came back last year when we were ordered back to our home towns: ‘You’re Nicki Reardon, Charlie Reardon’s daughter,’ he says finally. ’I’m sorry about your parents, no-one should go like that, whatever they’ve done.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Thank you.’
‘Why did you let down my tyres though, girl?’
‘Not now, Mister Masterson,’ I say, and lean closer to hug him again.
Last Christmas, his nephew, Gordon, had been standing on the opposite bank of the river, looking through a pair binoculars towards our house. I told my parents.
‘He’s a freak, a flag waver, ’ Dad said. ‘Just ignore him.’
‘There are too many like him. And why are they camping there?’ Mum said.
‘Crazy idiots, they’ll fall apart soon enough, start fighting amongst themselves, they always do.’
And then came a shot, fizzing through the lounge window, plugging into the far wall. A rapid series of shots followed, the pane splintering, then giving way, the wall crumbling.
I heard laughter, catcalls, others joining Gordon on the bank from the trees. They gave their sign and shouted: ‘black-loving leftie faggots going to be eaten by maggots!’ and a parting shot was fired, a bullet screaming past my ear.
In the café, Frances is on the piano. A Tom Waits song, a hint of Vaudeville, a dis-coordinate waver of the keys, an asthmatic rasp: ‘You’re innocent when you dream.’ She goes on to Nina Simone’s ‘Mister Bojangles’, getting out her favourites before the end and not a dry eye in the house.
‘Coffee tastes like poison. But welcome all the same!’ shouts Mister Masterson, standing up and holding his mug in triumph.
‘Sit down, Bill,’ barks Miss Wendy, my first primary school teacher, as firm as hell.
‘I’m thanking her, Wendy, thanking her.’
‘Well, make sure you do, and no trouble, we’ve done with trouble.’
‘Done with trouble’: the resigned understated expression of the old.
The shots had been a warning. Soon came the roadblocks. The bridge over the river was closed. We were quarantined. Starved. Electricity and phone lines cut. My parents were part of a group sent to negotiate. Days later, their bloated bloodless bodies floated back along the river, gaping tributaries of grey rotting flesh gouged into their necks.
I mourned as best as I could. But I couldn’t cry; it was too much to keep my senses together or even real. Fear blew through the town like a fever, hung to our clothes, and infected those of us who were left with a deranged and unfathomable anger that couldn’t come out, and, after a while, as the hunger and cold took hold, we drew lots for the firing squad, huddled in the queue for our procession to the final solution.
There’s a line from a Shangri-La song, often played on Mildred’s jukebox: ‘he’s good bad but he’s not evil.’ Okay, Mister Masterson wasn’t ‘good bad’; he was plain bad but maybe not totally evil. ‘Blacks should keep to their place but I don’t go along with killing them.’ That was his line, and he liked to say it out loud. Black people worked for him. ‘If just they do their job, we get along fine,’ he’d say. A racist, not a killer, but now he was labelled a collaborator, the lowest of the low, a classification that had led him to Mildred’s, apart from his neighbours, apart from his kind.
It was a hot night when we’d crept into the abattoir’s parking lot, the stench of dereliction and rotting carcasses seeping from his sheds. We daubed signs on his lorry, ‘Animal Killer’, ‘White Supremacist’, ‘Bow to the Holy Cow’, and let down its tyres.
He arrived into the night with the steel of a shotgun glimmering from the beam of his torch. ‘What’s going on?’ he yelled.
‘Retribution,’ we shouted and laughed, hiding behind some bins, near the outer wall of his yard.
But he was a wily old bastard, turned off his torch and snuck low into the dark. Soon, he had John by the scruff of the neck, dragging him into the centre of the yard. He turned the torch on his face, the barrel of the gun spotlighted at his temple.
‘John gets it if you faggots don’t show yourselves.’
One by one he started to draw us out. I was first.
‘A girl?’ he said. ‘What business has a girl misbehaving in the night?’ He looked down at John: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself bringing her here.’
But then his attention was taken by the last two to emerge: Marlon and Sheila. ‘Marlon Biggs and his bitch Trells! Both your fathers work for me, or at least they did until now.’
‘That’s not fair! Please, I’ll put right all we’ve done,’ said Marlon.
‘Fair, you want fair, I’ll show you fair,’ and he smashed the butt of the gun against the side of John’s head.
Marlon suddenly rushed him and the gun fired. A bullet ricocheted off the lorry into the chest of Mister Masterson’s dog that’d just appeared in the yard. We all stopped and Mister Masterson fell to his knees and let out a long anguished howl.
I noticed the worn scuffed soles of his boots, mud water seeping out of the cracks, the old bastard had worked them hard. His sobbing, the whimpering of his dog, his head bowed and defeated, we should have finished him off then.
I look at him now, crumpled in his seat, his fearful eyes flicking around to check we’re really okay with him, someone like him, being here, a distraction from his vigil, eyes trained onto the front door to see who might charge in.
Frances slowly dances around the room. Another Shangri-La song on the jukebox: ‘He’s the leader of the pack, vroom, vroom,’ she sings, directing her attention to Mister Masterson.
He grunts at her and shoos her away.
She beckons Miss Wendy onto the floor: ‘Come on, Wendy, why don’t you shape some moves like you used to?’
‘Have you gone mad?’ says Miss Wendy.
‘I have,’ she says. ‘Dregs left in heaven, coffee gone my brethren, but we know what we are about to receive and there’s no getting away from it, so I’d like some of the fun that’s owed me.’ She pulls down a rusty looking tea caddie from the shelf above the service counter. ‘Now the expiry date will be well passed but let’s not worry too much about that, shall we?’ She takes out a sheet of paper embossed in small orange squares. She peels one of the squares away from the sheet as if it was a stamp and places it on her tongue. ‘Ride the nausea, don’t let fear be your friend, just let it go and a better world will be revealed. I suggest one stamp for the uninitiated and two for those familiar,’ and she swallows another, and presents the sheet to me. ‘Nicki, take one and offer the rest around.’
I take one like a sacrament, and offer the rest to the others. ‘Mister Masterson, will you?’
‘Why not?’ he says.
‘I spent my life fighting against drugs, banning them from school, campaigning for better rehabilitation services for addicts so I’d be a hypocrite if I took one now.’
‘If you’re sure?’
‘Well, I’m not sure, Nicki, but you go ahead, I won’t report you,’ and she laughs, which sets Frances off, giggling and hooting like a hyena.
In the valley the sound of explosions and thunder roll closer. I am on a path amongst a line of squat trees – brown trunks, wooden table legs – crawling on all fours – ‘never crawled to anyone’ should be writ on my tombstone, unless I be a spider, which I’m not – Bill Masterson is under the table sobbing like a baby, his coat – his dog reborn – swaddled in his arms – ‘you’ll be okay, going to look after you from now on’, his hands seemingly covered in dog blood – ‘how do you know?’ – its colour, the pedigree, human blood is . . . and when I close my eyes I see it like a river spewing from my parents’ freshly opened necks – ‘Let it go’, ‘ride’ it out Frances advised – yellow mist, stomach fumes, could sick it up or wait – I wait, Miss Wendy looks on, her primitive features full of gnarly wisdom – ‘you’re a tree,’ I tell her and she nods and maybe she smiles too – Frances is dancing like a loon, teeth chattering, raising her spent shotgun over her head like an apache – ‘help’ I yell but not a word leaves my mouth – ‘I’m not your guide, girl,’ Frances replies – and then, all of a sudden, I’m in a clearing, the voices in my head momentarily silenced – I’m crawling into the centre of the room, thunder directly above, red flashes up close against the windows – crackling, cracking – is that smoke coming in under the door? – Bill Masterson and Miss Wendy skulk out of the jungle to join me. Wendy squats down and we all hold hands, Miss Wendy’s dry like bark – a tree! – we’re humming – I can’t make out the tune but we’re hitting the same note – celestial vibrations – and then the brightest of lights as they all charge in.
Alan McCormick lives with his family by the sea in Wicklow, Ireland. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including in Salt’s Best British Short Stories, Confingo, Lakeview, and online at Words for the Wild, Strands, Dead Drunk Dublin, 3:AM and Époque Press. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.
He also writes shorter pieces in response to pictures by artist, Jonny Voss. See more of this collaboration, along with Alan’s own fiction at www.alanmccormickwriting.wordpress.com