Monday, September 25, 2006

Photos From The Attic - Part Five

Part One of this story can be found here.

I don't know how far I'd run, but I guessed at a mile or so. There'd been no one on Main Street when I'd fled Johnson's place. It had been deserted, eerie, quiet. I hadn't taken time to look about for long, my legs pumping in time to the pounding of my heart. Even when I felt the burn in my muscles I kept on running, wanting to get away from the dead body, wanting to escape what I'd found, even though the letter was still clamped in my fist. It was the words that were haunting me.

It can't be forgotten, even now that Carter's dead. That boy is out there somewhere and I think he's hunting us down. Come on Johnson, admit it and we can all move on.

Admit it, man; do us all a favour and let's finish it once and for all.

Spilling around my head, dancing through my mind; the words said so much yet so little.

I was leaning over being sick into some bushes when I heard the gentle thrum of the engine, idling on the highway. I knew it was him, my lift. He'd found me. I wiped the string of vomit that dangled from my lower lip with the back of my hand, spitting acid taste and bile on to the grassy verge. Then I turned around, stuffing the letter into my back pocket, not wanting it to become a topic of discussion.

He was sitting in the car, staring straight ahead, waiting patiently.

I'd not given the driver any further thought for some hours, dealing with Johnson had consumed me, but now I came to consider what motive he had for driving me about, what was in it for him. It can't simply have been a coincidence he was 'going my way' and it wasn't fate that brought us together. Something wasn't quite right, was off-kilter and it nagged as I scrunched the gravel beneath my feet and started off towards the car still wiping my hand across my lips, trying to remove all trace of the bile flavour from my mouth. But, I needed to get to Foley's and with my best estimate putting the drive at four hours, I didn't have a choice.

Someone had something to admit to. I wanted to be there when they spilled their guts.


The landscape changed as we approached Fellingdale, a small community left isolated when the railroad had been usurped by the six-lane highway that encirlced the capital, fed by arterial roads that spread out through the rest of the country. A sense of urbanisation was creeping in: small, local shops began to appear; litter blew in the light breeze caused by the cars whizzing past or trucks clattering along; dogs ran loose, frayed string cutting into their necks leaving me wondering what they'd been running from in the first place. The sign greeting visitors might as well have said

"You're now entering a poor neighbourhood. Please drive away quickly, do not leave your possessions for one single minute. Trust no one. Now, fuck off. Consider yourself told".

Kids hung about on the street corners, dressed in shorts and dirty t-shirts, some barefoot. I didn't think that this could exist in today's society, such a forgotten community, a desperate and unloved neighbourhood breeding crime, hatred and disillusionment. Once, this had been a thriving enterprise, actually making the local maps in upper case: FELLINGDALE, a stop-off for salesmen, a centre for commerce, a growth town. Everything changed with the building of the ring road. It had occurred almost twenty years ago; Fellingdale had never recovered from that decision to construct the road and the downward slide didn't appear to be halting – despite the few shops, there was no evidence of chainstores removing the 'To Let' signs that adorned every third store.

Snobbily, I thought that this might well be the neighbourhood that my 'chauffeur' – that's what I'd laughingly started to address him as, yet there was not one peep out of him – would have grown up in, perhaps even aspired to live in. I guessed he wasn't fussy about those kinda things; just one look at him and you wanted to give him some change. Although he didn't smell of rotting cabbage, and he drove a car, every other part of him screamed homeless. Tattered shirt, ripped jeans, unruly hair in sharp curls that spattered off in different directions, as if Pollock had styled it. I didn't like how he made me feel about him, the sense of being better.

And, he was so damn quiet it was beginning to unnerve me again, a proper chill down my spine. I started to grind my teeth, look out the window at the pre-fab buildings, the bright shop fronts and the small groups of locals milling about in the midday sun.

I was pulled back to reality when we turned off. Within a few miles things changed. Suburban sprawl, but decidedly richer. Houses getting bigger; lawns neatly trimmed, set off with flowerbeds and sprinklers; "SLOW! CHILDREN PLAYING" signs announcing each new tree-lined avenue. And then we began to slow. Foley had done good, I thought.

But then I saw the sign: Welcome to The Fellingdale Home for Senior Citizens.

Gripping the letter in my clenched fist, I got out of the car, wanting to get away from this man who didn't speak, but at the same time apprehensive of what I might find and of what Foley might tell me.

I hoped that this time I wasn't too late.

This story is continued here

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Photos From The Attic - Part Four

Part One of this story can be found here.

I found the cups. They were so full of mould it was impossible to wash away no matter how many times I placed them under the brown water spraying out of only one working tap. There didn't appear to be any glasses; perhaps he drank straight from the bottle, necking it in short glugs? Not that I wanted a drink. Would've been a bad thing to do.

The whiskey in the bottle was almost gone, empty. There were several empty ones lying in the sink, broken shards with their sheen of fine malted whiskey long since evaporated. There was a local liquor wholesaler's box in the next cupboard. I took a full bottle of the single malt out, left the half empty one standing, guarding the cupboard.

It took me a minute to work it out, for the penny to fall down into a darkened chasm, ears bent to hear any faint splash, wishing it to be bottomless but actually hearing it finally drop after a disappointing ten seconds. I got up. He was still warm, but his chest definitely wasn't going to move again this lifetime. I poured him a glass, left it in his hand; amber-gold splashes on his trousers, mixing with his urine, faeces, as bowel and bladder broke their levees. I picked the photo from his hand, nails already turning white as the blood drained to the lowest point of gravity. Fingers flick, eyes close. A last wheeze of breath, stale with an odour of alcohol and lima beans. Poor fuck: what a life.

I looked about the room. He had to have kept in touch with the others and there was a chance they might go the same way as old Johnson here before me. He'd given me something - there was another, not in the photo and not taking it. Where'd he gone? What'd happened? I surveyed the room, but it revealed that Johnson had lived sparse, hand-to-mouth no doubt, on the social security or maybe a war pension; maybe what he could beg, borrow or steal. I didn't have time to reminisce about a man I didn't know well enough before he'd gone and kicked his bucket from here to the fucking Arctic Circle. Selfish old cunt, the thought coming from nowhere.

I had to leave the place, get out before anyone noticed the old mad had been visited by someone, before word got out that there was a stranger in town. After all, my lift had been suspiciously knowledgeable about my exact destination. I hadn't said a word, as usual, but I hadn't needed to. It was then that I spied the tin under his seat. A rusted, battered and dented biscuit tin, the lid held fast with tape and string. Reaching it meant I had got the full force of Johnson's bowel movements and bladder issues, several times the tin just slipping from my grasp so that by the time I'd finally clamped my fingers tightly around it my head was almost touching Johnson's dick. I gagged but managed to resist the urge to vomit and retrieve the tin.

I pulled at the string, its toughness cutting into my hands leaving thin, bloodless welts that stung as my sweat ran into them. I ignored it, using my teeth to bite through the string. I could hear shuffling from the box; I believed it contained letters and I thought they might say something about my Gramps, about this secret. Finally, after scrabbling for a further minute with the dirty tape, glued on with dirt that had been gathering on the adhesive over several years, the box was open, the contents spilled messily over the floor as I searched them for recent post marks.

I found one. Sent only weeks before. It was from Foley. I figured he was on the right, although I had to accept that he could've been one of the others in the photo, it was difficult to know. My hands trembled as I fumbled with the envelope, suddenly tearing it open when I realised I didn't need to be polite anymore, the dead not being up on the latest etiquette themselves.

It had his address, printed across the top of a letter. He was living upstate, back in the home of his youth. I scanned the neat words, looking for clues to questions, ideas, I didn't know what. And then I saw it, written in his shaky blue and white script, the answer I was looking for: someone who knew what happened. Someone else.


This story is continued here

Friday, September 01, 2006

Photos From The Attic - Part Three

Part One of this story can be found here.

Every time we stopped to rest we could hear them, the crack of a branch as it was pushed aside with a hand, the snap of a twig as it gave beneath the weight of a body moving forward; no matter their stealth, we knew they were there. They'd been following us for hours, perhaps drawn by the snuffling sobs of Carter, the youngest in our small band of soldiers. It had taken several hard slaps to his face to get his crying to a low volume. Perhaps they'd heard his wailing; it's not everyday you see a colleague lose their head to a sniper, is it? Perhaps they'd spotted us as we moved out, withdrawing into the shadows offered by the jungle foliage. It could just as easily have been the thwack created by the flailing hands of Smith as he swatted flies, moths, gnats and mosquitoes (he pretended to know the difference, even though we all flapped our hands at any flying insect in case it came at us with a taste for blood). It's not as if we could simply tramp over and ask them: why are you following us?

We were their enemy. They were ours.

I remember it clearly. It often plays in my head at night, the flash as they released the flares, the onerous thump of trees being smacked by machine gun fire; I recall the clicking sound as the leaves were stripped, even above our shouts of panic and the slap of our feet on the muddy ground. Blindly we ran, trying to dodge unseen foe, unseen weapons. From which direction they were coming I do not know to this day, we could have been running towards them at one point such was the fear we all felt. I suffer today, still, from the effects of the acrid smoke; it burned the lining of my lungs, but the army said it wasn't negligent. How can that be? They sent us in there; yes, we were doing our duty, but no one told us it would lead to certain death for so many of us, of them.

The day had started as a typical innocuous day for us new servicemen. We'd been deployed away from the front, to get acclimatised, to learn the ropes. We thought we'd be safe, that we'd be back in the arms of our respective families in no time at all. Three weeks and the closest we'd got to being injured was playing football or burning under the hot Oriental sun. That was all to change after breakfast.

The four of us sat together, a small team of local lads - we'd known each other at school, even though there was a five-year gap between Carter and myself. We were looking out for each other, watching backs and hoping those same people we covered were doing the same for us. You had to stick together, no one wanted to be left alone, to be left out. That's how we came to be hiding out in the jungle, how we came to be under fire. Of course, knowing what I know now, well, it gives things a new perspective. Hindsight is a bitch like that.

I was scraping the last of the egg yolk on my plate, a yellow pond through which I dredged a slice of white bread, the texture of cardboard. It needed yolk to make it palatable, thatÂ’s the army for you. Lieutenant Campson came in, pointed at us, directly. There could be no getting out of it, the first operation. A hush descended on the mess tent; I couldn't manage that last piece of bread, probably would've choked me. That hindsight: might have been best to choke to death than go through what we all went through. Listen lad, it wasn't easy, even for the veteran soldiers, but for us newies it were fucking horrible. Pardon me language.

I'm sorry lad, I'm feeling tired now. I need to rest. It's my lungs, I think I mentioned.

Make yourself useful and get in that kitchen, make yourself a drink. There's a bottle of whiskey in the cupboard above the sink, bring that back with you. And give me that photo again, let me look just once more. Now, let me rest a little; I'll not be able to sleep, not with those screams haunting me, not now you've made me think about it just when I thought it was starting to fade.

This story is continued here