People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
The Dodgy World of Ear-Recorders
by D.F. Lewis
A packet of pain. That seemed to be the most understated description possible for what was delivered to me that otherwise sunny day last June.
"Hello, Mr. Gardner."
I stared at the mailwoman's spriggy face, guessed she must be a holiday stand-in for postman Dan and I accepted the sticky-taped wad that she proffered with a sweet surreptitious smile. I unaccountably resented it, because Dan was the regular feeder of my letter-box with all manner of orange envelopes containing rejections or contracts, jiffy-bagged packages with returned manuscripts or contributor's copies of magazines, adverts, fan mail , bills and, more infrequently, billets-doux from potential sweethearts.
"Thank you," I said, wondering how she knew my real name--until I looked at the label on the missive's bubbly wrapping. Gardner wasn't my pseudonym. Yet nobody in the publishing world could possibly have known I was called Gardner, especially as I hadn't called myself that for many years: a closely guarded secret, between self and a certain certificate I kept in a casket along with other private papers--simply waiting for the bio-riflers at some indeterminate point in the future. Although death was the most certain thing about life, it also remained the most uncertain.
Gardner tried to live down, not his name so much, but more the murky reputation that lay behind it. Some had even claimed he was more real than Count Dracula--and that was really saying something, considering the recent hullaballoo of the vampire bandwagon when a particularly rich seam had been discovered in the human psyche, a rich seam relating to the so-called undead branch of Earth-Stowaways (as such creatures as werewolves, zombies, flesh-corrupted ghosts and spirit-diluted ghouls were often generally categorised) and also considering--perhaps with even more significance--the sheer force of a malevolent destiny that now seemed to prevail worldwide whatever the best efforts of so-called human beings.
If the truth were known, Gardner was on the side of the angels. He simply started wearing false fangs as a disguise, so that the harbingers of intrinsic badness would not recognize him as an enemy and would even count him as one of their ilk. It was a bluff worthy of the Devil himself, a clandestine means to a subterfugal end, even if Gardner began to believe his own disguise--which was, of course, an occupational hazard, seeing that humanity was currently stricken with an endemic case of premature senility, Gardner included. In fact, his mind wandered so much, he failed to remember whether Good or Evil was his paymaster--not that either Good or Evil controlled any financial--or even moral--wherewithal, during the global recession of mind and money which permeated all civilised societies at that time.
Half blast ten.
Gardner thought his wife to be sexier than his mistress.
He listened to the booming in the chimney breast. He dabbed at the canvas, hoping against hope that a picture might eventually emerge. The deep-coloured floral curtains barely twitched in a draught from the shut sash-window, its lacy net underwear stuck to the glass like gauze bandage.
Juliet entered the parlour on cloud eight and a half. She twirled her night clothes, revealing parts of her body which, in public, she wouldn't be seen dead in. Light music playfully bumbled upon the fine tuning, visibly rippling the sensitive mesh of the speaker. Gardner resented such background mush. The wind, in contrast, had no excuse, other than its natural leanings.
He hated artefacts. He suspected Juliet of being part animal, part machine, freshly manicured hard-ends and softer bits simply yearning to be pampered by the likes of Gardner. Recalling the abrasive love-making earlier in the day, he ached for the company of his wife, Strada. At least Strada was woman all through, even if it meant suffering the sharp edge of
Juliet made as if to turn up the volume on the high-thigh.
"Leave it low," he said.
"I like this group," she simpered oilily.
"Can two constitute a group? Or even one and a quarter?" he found himself wordlessly thinking. Too easy to misunderstand women. Manifestly, they were created by a tongue-in-cheek God for double-entendres. He wondered whether God Himself had any metal parts about Him.
The wind abruptly spoke capital letters, roaring down the chimney-shaft like an old-fashioned train. The curtains flew into the room like an angel's wings, dislodging the plastered net dressings and revealing a reddish moonrib. The latter caused the condensation on the inner pane to seem bloody. Gardner felt his head--something was coming apart in there, too.
Juliet nuzzled next to Gardner on the sofa, iron grey eyes rolling in innocence. Her breasts grew larger with the increased rate and depth of breathing. The self-adjusting channel on the speaker grew fainter. The matchless beauty of silence: a stop-gap in a static storm. He heard God breathing with him, in tune to Gardner's biological clock.
The key in the lock.
This moment's dread had lived with him since the beginning of the affair. His wife. Strada's unexpected return. How could he find words to explain? Juliet was more than just a woman. But that was too trite a thing to think.
He'd never really anticipated friendship between Strada and Juliet. A wife and mistress conspiracy--against him.
The first light of dawn signalled the storm's abating. Gardner's desultory attempts to return to the comfort of his oils. The canvas looked more like the window than the window: with certain drapes as a hamfisted mediaeval framing. The sun's new gold shafting through the cluttered lace blurred the pantile rooftops beyond. The focus-point was merely memory. He hated derivation--so he painted into the picture several impish creatures clambering between the chimneypots. Fantasy was halfway to Heaven...
From the bedroom, he heard the two women mumbling. He thought he heard Juliet claiming she had a device which most women lacked--all she had to do was blow hard with her nether maw.
"Ooh!" whispered Strada wordlessly.
Gardner had been appointed chaperone (a bit of a non-job, in the circumstances), but he failed even in this role. Then, the noises in the chimney woke him to reality.
Time to switch on. He reached into his trouser pocket and turned a speaker knob, his tongue initially gagging on the muslin hymen.
Pub past then.
"The way wicked works..." the strange woman whispered wordlessly.
Gardner scrutinised her across the pub lounge and he caught the silent meaning as if she had spoken aloud to the whole company. Smiling seemed to be the only thing to do. Realising this, she smiled back. Not only was she strange, but a stranger, too--yet with two identifiable indentities in common.
Gardner had not many memories on which to base his past (other than his name), but he knew for certain that he was someone whom he could easily befriend if he'd met himself for the first time in such surroundings. With this confidence, he took his drink over to her table.
"Come here often?" The triteness of his opening gambit caused shame to redden upwards.
"You should know. You should know."
Why should Gardner know ... twice?
He felt the roof of his mouth with the tongue and it tasted peculiarly metallic. He put this down to the quality of the beer. Her voice was less whispery close-up.
"May I get you another drink?" Gardner pointed with his head at the half-drunk contents of her cocktail glass.
"No, thank you. Too much of it makes my head whizz."
Now on automatic pilot, he sat down beside her, ignoring the stares of the regulars. One regular had just appeared from the Gents and sat on a high barstool, raising a drink to Gardner and the woman.
She seemed as if she were ready to depart, but Gardner's interruption had evidently postponed such a decision--at least for a while.
There was nothing sexual in his advances. He was merely interested in her as a person. Why on such a lunchtime was she drinking alone? Why had she whispered wordlessly about wickedness? He also yearned for company, recognition of his existence in the otherwise unfriendliness of the world. He needed to claim a space, however undeserved. The woman's attractiveness was a side-issue. The way her deep-coloured floral blouse was filled with large unbandaged breasts was, if anything, a distraction.
She stared at Gardner's long fingers, as their pressure around the pint-pot turned them to white gold. He, too, was intrigued by the aspect of his own finger-joints, since they wore chunky rings which he had never seen before. The knuckles, too, were nuggets of something other than bone.
Some regulars were now braying familiarities at the inscrutable bar-tender. Gardner heard the slam of car doors outside--either new pint punters or others leaving. He feared the woman might have been awaiting an assignation. Would his blushes become a plug-ugly crimson mask, when her beau arrived? She eased the tension by saying: "I was watching you, watching me."
"Please don't say sorry."
It was too late to obey, so Gardner made as if to move away.
"Don't go--they say people have much love under their armour."
He stared, forgetting to smile. She had found the chink. His kneecaps tightened hard. A bone for the plates.
"It's like a crane, isn't it?" she said.
"Yes, when you people are aroused, it lifts up like your old childhood Meccano model, hook hanging."
He settled his eyes on his lap. He felt sick to the stomach, the bar food which he'd sent there churning between iron rollers.
The blue pulses outside became obvious. Uniformed men surged into the lounge and grabbed the regular on the high stool.
"Come quietly--you're wanted back at the Works," Gardner heard grunted.
It was presumably the end of the regular's lunchbreak.
Two of the bluebottles made wicked glances in Gardner's direction...
As he was led away, Gardner's head could swivel back to take a last look at the woman he'd known as both someone and someone else. A Juliet of the two Spirits.
A Road to Nowhere. Talking Heads. Iron cross-eyed.
Real tears weltered in both her red rimmed eyes.
He cried wirelessly, teardroplessly.
Quarter cast two. Blank on.
One day, towards the latter end of his exploits, when his mind was fixed on the single-minded goal of actually thinking (whatever the consequent thoughts), there dawned on him a rare moment of uncharacteristic clarity. Or he thought it did. He was Count Dracula in person, no more no less. Not Dracula's double, or mimic, or even understudy. Nor was he the creature that Dracula himself often mimicked. There could be no doubt when Gardner found himself with his spine hinged backwards and rearing above a beautiful girl who was about half his age (half his own age as opposed to half Count Dracula's relative immortality, needless to say), his fangs already drooling a dress rehearsal of his own gum-blood, eyes so piercingly red he had charred his own retina, his consequent blindness lending a realistic tone to the flailing panic of his movements, head wagging from side to side, hams jerking, hands prising the soft thighs apart, his one-eyed spitting serpent larger than life...
The fair maiden bit Gardner off, with one fell gouge of her youth-embedded teeth, and said, between gristle-picking, something she later would have regretted if she hadn't forgotten it: "Rapists go to Hell!"
Yet why was the mailwoman loitering on my doorstep following the delivery of that snap-pod packet, too big for the door-slit? She seemed to await a reply for taking back to whomsoever had instigated the parcel's path through the mail maze. Her peaked cap suited her complexion, however--as did the bristly uniform, navy blue pleated skirt above even bluer stockings and shiny high-heels. Must have been a sore job tramping the post round in those patent leather teeters. The hair was as colourless as human hair possibly could be, and in endearing clumps. The mouth kissable but, in the context that day, decidedly unwelcoming, despite the half-smile.
I started to shut my door. A thank-you was the most she was getting from me. I hardly passed the time of day with postman Dan, at the best of times. So, she'd had her ration of pleasantries already, especially for a new face in the neighbourhood. I was eager to open the packet, in any event: to see who had the nous and, yes, effrontery, to address it to a Mr Gardner: felt like a book inside, a paperback. My work had never appeared in a pukka book: mostly magazines to date, albeit, in some case, posh ones. So, I was quite excited to see my work printed in something that somebody might pick up at an airport and read on a journey ... which was not usually the case with the magazines I had previously frequented: frequented like an unshakeable demon.
I was intensely angered when the young miss had the bare-faced cheek to lodge one of her high-heels in such a position that the door jammed open, upon my trying to slam it shut. I felt the woodframe judder up my bad arm--the one with twinges of tennis-elbow--a snagging that made my teeth on edge, as if the heavy-duty doormat had sufficiently swollen to jar the hinges loose. I was crazy enough to look down to check it out--to see if my beaver-hair welcome mat was engorged with something other than boot-muck or, even, to gauge its capacity to incubate a bristly soul. No, the effect was purely due to the positioning of the post-lady's left ankle-joint, heel-drumming, impatiently sole-scraping.
"Would you mind..." I began.
This time the smile was broad--in the open. She doffed her cap, in a moment of mock politeness. The mouth's kissability was tangible, tasteable in sheer anticipation. The eyes spoke volumes or, rather, simple stories of fate and fatality. Here was stirring stuff to startle the most seasoned fiction writer. The words almost spoke for themselves. A bestseller before I'd bought off the worst. I had never been in a story in real life before. Everything, to date, had been from the inner workings of imagination, if thinly sown with nuggets of experience. And, like history, there was no arguing with it.
Mesmerised by her actual ability to exist outside the story which I was about to write, I invited her into my sanctuary with the merest tilt of the head. Since I had no better judgment left, I could not even act against it. She knew how to behave; after all, I was the one making her do what she did. I only had myself to blame. I wished postman Dan wasn't on holiday.
I would've chinwagged with Dan for ages, simply to keep Dan on duty. All was forgiven, Dan. Come in for a cup of coffee, Dan. Have a freshly baked scone, Dan. How's Dan's wife? We should have a chat like this more often, Dan.
Nobody had been in my parlour since ... when? I could hardly remember. I saw my word-processor on the desk, just waiting for the imprint of my fingers: keyed up for the words to be delivered in description of the events now being physically reflected upon its black screen. Me and the thickly tweeded mail-woman. Dan's stand-in. Coming closer. Tongue speaking to tongue with spittly gutturals. My mouth wedged wide with a thicker, tougher wad than a simple human tongue. The front-door could go hang. I imagined the missive's bubbly prophylactic wrapping popping as the pods ruptured against the teeth. Tantalising the soft palate with snapped air-pockets.
I felt my mind's words slime down the gullet full of so much meaning they would burst that mind soon as they got back there. Slither words. Burst blood-blister words. Sex words. Reaching to the very backscreen of the brain, by-passing the eyes and, even, all the other senses. Yet I knew I was the perpetrator of the evil done to that poor lady who was postman Dan's substitute for someone else. Now her front door was to be lodged open by the porkiest pink parcel she'd ever likely to receive...
But, instead, the engorged gland bent back into his own rear-end, impregnating his tiny unsphinctered precinct to the point of lateral blow-out: bearing a sticky-label addressed to a man too mean to be me.
When postman Dan arrived with the same day's delivery, he discovered corpse fingertips straining through the letter-box, as if trying to escape the house. The fingers led to a man dressed in a navy-blue skirt and peaked cap, as if he had been playing at something to do with trains or airports, perhaps role-playing for real. A toy post-office set was discovered on the kitchen table, its rubber date-stamp dated with a date past the death-by date. Also sheaves of scrawl, evidently in some act of self-perpetuation or was it map-making? All gobbledy-gook. The man often received a lot of post--in really tiny pink perfumey envelopes from a strange woman (or so Dan naturally inferred, judging by the recipient). But, as Dan gradually became to suspect, they were all self-addressed and sealed with a loving kiss.
Dan shrugged and went home to his wife who was interested to hear what had happened. Dan kept the grisly details secret from her and, in time, even from himself. Certainly a suicide, or as certain as one could be without the corroboration of a primary source. Suicides were, in any event, more unmemorable than murders: less participants. Juliet Of The Spirits was a film by Fellini, wsnít it? Danís mind went blank.
Gardner had always been out of his arse, even at the best of times, hadn't he? Time to shrug and go.
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