Stories to read
There are now four stories to read below - The Night Ape, The Book, The Open Door and Trouble Man. These are older stories - my new ones are SO much better! (Yeah,sure). Publication details are at the bottom of each story.
Additionally, here are online links to some short pieces published on various websites-
The following are radio broadcasts or recorded stories -
Click here to hear the actor Oliver Langdon read my little story 'Orly' at Bath's Story Friday on 1 April 2016.
Click here to see a video of the actor Moses Hardwick reading my story Strange Fruit - An Imagining at the 2015 Cheltenham Literature Festival. This is a new re-engineered louder version! Many thanks David Penny.
Listen here to Jon Kelly of Sine FM read my story 'The Hero' for National Short Story Week 2016.
Click here to hear me read one and a half minutes from my story 'Lips' at the launch of the 2015 Bath Short Story Award Anthology.
There's a June 2015 interview with me on The Short Story website
Below are four stories to read -
The Night Ape - A True Story?
Alfred Craddock had a lucrative business bringing animals back from Africa for British collectors. In the early 19th century nature lovers and collectors preferred animals, no matter how rare, to be stuffed and mounted. This was perfectly legal. Alfred’s wife Jane, a practical woman some years younger than her husband, trained in taxidermy, and was able to support his business, expertly stuffing and mounting the smaller animals. His expedition to the Kingdom of Kongo in central Africa in 1837 was reported fully in the Times, and was well known to the general public. Alfred, a rather squat man with copious facial hair, led the expedition personally, using doughty colleagues from London, as well as local guides, always ensuring that the more hair-raising aspects of his work received full press coverage. Financially, he was extremely successful, amassing a small fortune, with which he bought Eastbrook Hall in Nottinghamshire where he lived quietly with Jane.
With the opening of the London Zoological Gardens in 1847, Alfred’s work began to take on a different aspect. Zoos and menageries, both public and private, began to spring up across the country and to commission him to collect live animals. In 1849 he journeyed for a second time to the Kongo to meet up with local guides. They told him of a nocturnal ape living in an inaccessible forested region. After an exhausting trek taking some weeks, he and his crew were finally able to locate, identify, and, by using an enormous net thrown over an entire tree, capture this rare beast. It was a male, about the size of a small man, and looked not unlike most apes, but because of its nocturnal nature, it had huge eyes, like those of a bush baby. This gave it the appearance of a complete innocent. Alfred named the beast the Night Ape. At the expedition’s end he sailed for home with a huge number of mammals, reptiles and birds, which he believed would result in a lucrative deal.
On the long sea journey, Alfred would occasionally go below deck to check the welfare of his captives in their cages. He remained particularly interested in, and enamoured of, the Night Ape. Although it slept during the day, when visited at night, the ape would stare directly at him with its beautiful huge dark eyes. Perhaps for this reason, Alfred began to talk to the ape. He believed that the ape, its head slightly tilted and its eyes meeting his, was listening. On the night before his ship was due to dock in Southampton, whilst talking to the caged ape, he was astonished when it put a hand through the bars, gently onto his own hand, apparently in friendship.
On arriving home, he decided that the Night Ape was so special that he would not sell it to a zoo, but instead he would convert his huge conservatory into suitable living quarters. This was a shock for Jane, but, after her first encounter with the ape, she agreed that it would be interesting to study this exotic and friendly animal.
The Night Ape settled in well, eating heartily, and seemed contented with its new surroundings, happily leaping amongst the trees. Very quickly, it took to greeting Alfred and Jane when they entered the conservatory by running to them, its arms outstretched. Enchanted, its owners encouraged this affection by feeding it with titbits, particularly chicken and lamb, which it devoured.
Very quickly the ape became house trained, defecating in a container provided for the purpose. However, like many primates, the Night Ape often masturbated. Alfred was astonished to see that its penis, a corkscrew shape, was easily the longest he had ever encountered on any beast of this size. It often conducted this practice without warning and in an almost violent manner, which, if Jane were around, led her to flee in haste, her cheeks reddened with embarrassment.
Despite this, the ape became a real pet to the Craddocks, who began to allow it into the parlour where it would sit man-like in an armchair. First Alfred, and then Jane, began to read to it and it would listen carefully, its huge eyes focussed as it took in every word. It particularly enjoyed Tennyson’s poetry, as well as readings from the Bible.
After about two months, and against their better judgement, they gave the ape a name, and began calling it William. William quickly learnt to answer to his name, and the Craddocks were even more delighted when he began to say simple words in a deep gruff voice - at first his own name, their names, and greetings and farewells. William also began to eat with them, sitting in a chair at the table, his dextrous fingers gradually gaining expertise with crockery and cutlery. Beef and pork were now his favourite foods.
By this time, the Craddocks had started to live a more nocturnal existence in line with William’s, and their already small circle of friends began to reduce. Such was their obsession with William, they barely noticed their increased isolation.
One day as a joke, Jane suggested they dress William in a man’s clothing. Alfred tried to rule out the idea, but Jane insisted. And, although he refused to wear shoes at first, she began to clothe him daily, and they both began to refer to him as “our little gentleman”. They then started to take William for walks, fully clothed, wearing gloves, a cloak and hat, usually at night using dark glasses to protect his eyes from the street lights. So human did William appear that little suspicion was aroused. Indeed, there exists a rare daylight photograph of them at the time, taken in Hyde Park, with Jane standing between Alfred and William, holding hands with both, William looking slightly hunched, and Alfred with his side burns and full beard, appearing the more hirsute of the two.
By now, William, his vocabulary growing daily, had the run of the house. Like the perfect guest, he treated his owners, their property and possessions with respect, with only his persistent and violent masturbation continuing to be a cause for concern for the Craddocks. As a result, Alfred decided to acquire a female Night Ape. And in April 1851, Alfred Craddock set sail for the Kongo to locate a mate for William.
He returned disappointed from his expedition in the early hours of the 13 September 1852, and, being mindful of the late hour, left his luggage in the hall and entered quietly. He immediately heard an extraordinary wailing noise from the conservatory. Fearing that William might be dying, he rushed in - to find Jane on all fours in her white underwear, her exposed bottom glowing luminously in the moonlight, and William bent over her assuaging her needs from behind. On hearing Alfred enter, they stopped immediately, and looked furtively over their shoulders to at him. In great distress, Alfred went straight to the hall, took his rifle from his baggage, and returned to the conservatory. Before he could take aim, a single shot rang out, hitting the explorer in the chest, killing him instantly.
For both technical and emotional reasons, Jane found the stuffing and mounting of her late husband quite testing. But when she had finished, both she and William were impressed with her work. Jane had mounted Alfred in typical explorer pose, taking aim with his rifle at a distant object. It was almost as if Alfred was still with them, although to avoid the gaze of any visitors, they had to lock the new version in a spare room. Jane refused to visit it, but William would attend occasionally, often putting his hand on Alfred’s now lifeless hand, and smiling.
It was not too difficult for William to take Alfred’s place. Jane told the few who questioned her that the Night Ape had died suddenly. The nocturnal habits of the new Craddocks, together with the use of gloves, dark glasses and high necked clothing, meant that William’s appearance presented few real problems.
As befitted the age, the new Craddocks were nothing if not a benevolent couple with a strong social conscience. Using Alfred’s considerable wealth, they converted part of their home into a night school, teaching literacy, typing and compositional writing, with Jane as the main teacher. A newly built study room had one thousand desks and on each desk was a typewriter at which their students would learn to type and to write. After many years, it is said that a single work of genius was produced.
As they grew older, Jane and William continued to live quietly respectable lives and their love for each other grew. In 1867, after a short period of illness, Jane died of tuberculosis in the week of her 65th birthday, and William passed away one month later.
The authorities were not long in discovering the truth about Alfred, Jane and William. The national newspapers carried the shocking story, which was a source of disbelief and conjecture amongst both the chattering and working classes.
Alfred’s stuffed and mounted body, still holding the rifle, was buried in a specially made coffin in Highgate Cemetery, where a large crowd attended. William was interred in the pet cemetery in the nearby grounds of Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where his simple headstone bearing the words ‘William - the murderous ape’, can still be seen.
Belatedly, Alfred received an obituary in The Times. There is no record of anyone raising the issue of an obituary for Jane, it is believed, because of her gender. But the newspaper did publish a statement refusing to honour William with an obituary, despite his contribution to education and his new found notoriety, on the basis that their obituaries were restricted to human beings.
This view was not universally accepted, and became a cause celebre for many commentators, with Punch carrying a number of satirical cartoons featuring William. One, by H. M. Bateman, was called “The man who took four hours to shave”, and another depicted three Times journalists with their hands over their eyes, ears and mouth respectively, and the simple caption “No comment from The Times”.
There remains a modern legacy from this long forgotten story. From that time onwards, the verb “to ape”, meaning to copy, entered the English language, as did the verb “to screw”, meaning both to conduct sexual congress, and to cheat, exploit or betray.
Copyright - John Holland 2014
'The Night Ape - a True Story' won the 2014 Momaya Press Short Story Competition, and was published in the '2014 Momaya Press Review - Captivity'. And was published a second time in the 2016 'To Hull and Back' anthology of humourous stories.
The book haunted him. It was still in the small blue plastic bag in which he’d bought it. Not displayed openly. The bag looked incongruous in the meticulously regimented book case. Between McSweeney’s Volume 19 - the cigar box edition - and a signed collection of poetry by Simon Armitage. Amongst the army of books that protected him.
He took it from the shelf. From its bag. The first time since he’d bought it from that second-hand shop in Hove three months ago. Just a few days before her birthday.
The receipt and catalogue entry inside the book confirmed its value, its importance.
FITZGERALD, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934. First edition. In an unrestored first issue dust jacket, with quotes from T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, and Paul Rosenfeld on the front flap. $2.50 price not clipped. Original green cloth. Spine stamped in gilt. Jacket with some minor chipping along edges. Book fore-edge very slightly foxed. Protected in cellophane. Housed in a custom red morocco clamshell.
He traced his fingers over the cover design of stylised trees. The art deco typography. Glanced at the title page. Felt its age. Its rarity. Its place in literary history.
Goodness knows it had cost him enough. His credit card statement had groaned under the weight of it. But it was something she would have loved. She would have known how he felt about her.
He had intended to gift-wrap it in good quality paper. Something heavy. With a classic design. Not pink. Not tawdry. He’d imagined the scene a thousand times. In the restaurant. Others busily talking and eating around them. Taking no notice. Such would be his anticipation, he wouldn’t have been able to eat. Or even to speak. The book lying there secretly at his feet wrapped, still in the blue plastic bag. He would hand it over after the meal. She would have been surprised at the birthday gift. Delighted. That smile would have lit her face. Lit his life. She would have felt that he understood her. Appreciated her. Valued her. Not like her clot of a husband. That moron.
He’d first met her when she reserved a book in the library where he worked. He had found her quite attractive, but then there were lots of attractive women using the library. He thought nothing of it. Of her. But, as time went on, he realised that she consumed books in a way that he thought only he did. As if, like him, she had to read to stay alive. He always noticed her arrival in the library, so he struck up a conversation. She read modern American literature, like he did. Salinger, Updike, and, of course, Fitzgerald. He shared his enthusiasm, his love of those books, with her. He introduced her to authors she did not know – Dave Eggers, Don DeLillo, Edith Pearlman. He found himself re-reading books to refresh his memory, and borrowing criticisms for new insights. And for those few seconds in the library she listened to his views. His advice. A little nervous. Slightly embarrassed. Looked at him with her dark brown eyes. Smiled that smile. Put her head at a slight angle, moved her hair from her forehead with her small hands. Like the rain, he thought, and wanted to share the reference immediately.
He asked her for coffee. She agreed. Hesitantly, he knew. At lunch time they met in the cafe across the road from the library. In the open where they could be seen. Where it must be innocent. And talked and talked. For an hour. Two hours. Three. About books, writers, her damned husband, her children. It was as if he had known her all his life. As if they had some kind of ancient connection. He avoided the subject of his own family. And felt a little guilt. When he left the cafe he knew that he’d fallen in love. In a way he found a little frightening. Afterwards they exchanged email addresses, so they could share their views on books, he said. Of course he knew he would delete all the emails when he’d read them. And then delete them again from the cache. He was good at remembering to do that. No slip ups.
After all, he had to remember Josie’s feelings. There’s had been a good marriage. Two children, both now at university. They had a comfortable life. Supermarket Tuesday and Thursday when it wasn’t too busy. Crime thrillers on TV. Visits to the cinema. He loved Josie in his way. Respected her, certainly. Even though she read crime novels. Thrillers. Potboilers. Pointless nonsense, he called them.
But this was different . This woman inspired him, mesmerised him. He so wanted to make love to her. Not from duty. From need. He wanted to share his knowledge and enthusiasm for life and for books with her. They would read together, share ideas, suggest new books to each other. She would say sparkling things. Things which would delight him. And he would make her laugh. His wit untinged by time. By drudgery. Was it too much to ask?
She said that she had a birthday coming. Her fortieth. A big one. Mind blowing, she said. So he had bought the book when he saw it in the book shop. He couldn’t believe his luck. A wonderful birthday gift that she would never forget. He emailed her about a meal. It would be the ideal opportunity to present her with the book. A few days went by with no reply, so he emailed again. A few more days. When the reply came he deleted it. It said something about meeting not being appropriate. It mentioned her children and her husband. The moron, he thought. But she called the moron David. David! As if he wanted to know that bastard’s name.
She stopped coming to the library. Didn’t answer his emails. His hopes were destroyed. But he could tell no one. He had made a fool of himself. And the ungiven book told him so. Sitting there on the shelf. Accusatory. The title mocking him. He held it in his hand like a testament to his stupidity. A reminder of the way he had fallen in love again. Too easily. Irresponsibly. He felt anger rise in his throat. Fill his chest, his whole body. He thought of what he would say to her, do to her, if he saw her again.
He placed the book back in its blue bag and carried it up the ladder to the attic. Opened the entrance hatch. Pressed the switch. Blinked at the single stark light bulb. Avoided the wooden beams, the dark sloping roof, trod carefully but creakily. He felt for the key he kept on the high roof beam at the front of the attic. Located it with now dusty fingers, and walked along the floor beams to the big metal chest. The chest was warm in the attic heat. He turned the key in the padlock, and lifted the heavy lid. Neat piles of books, letters, cards - some opened, some not - cinema tickets, train tickets, an ebony-handled knife with a serrated blade, strands of hair - blonde, brown, red - carefully tied in black ribbon, each with a name on a small white tag attached with thread, a metal claw hammer, a pair of white cotton knickers with a dark red stain – the shape of Africa, he thought. When he grew older he would destroy them all. He would hate Josie to find them – his lost loves. His disappointments. To know his secrets. She didn’t deserve that. He placed the bag with the book into the chest. Closed the lid. Put the key back in its place.
Then he brought to mind another woman he had seen on the underground a few times. On the Bakerloo line. She had been determinedly reading books in the crush. Hardbacks, not on a kindle. Forster, Conrad, Isherwood. Maybe he would start a conversation with her. About books.
Copyright - John Holland 2014
The Book was runner-up in a multi-story.co.uk short story competition and published in 2014 in the Edge of Passion anthology by Marble City Publishing.
The Open Door
I wake about 8pm. Still in my shirt and shorts. I guess I got home about midday. Doris is asleep next to me. What a shape. She’s knocked up and about to burst. If it’s a boy I’m calling him Baird, and he’ll play the sax. I love music. It’s my life.
This isn’t the lousiest place I’ve had. It’s a two room apartment on the third floor, 132nd and 5th in the heart of Harlem. The rent is in arrears. The walls are brown, but we have a table, and chairs to sit on. Some made out of orange crates. The roaches aren’t too bad. Keep to themselves. No rats. Many brothers, some war heroes, have it worse than this.
Doris moves position and wakes. She’s like some dark aquatic mammal – ungainly on land but streamlined in the sea – only she can’t swim. Even at this stage I want some loving. I have to beg but I get it. Straight after, the inquisition begins.
“You’re not going out tonight, lover, are you?” she asks.
“New club opening.”
“Mazuma for the rent?” she asks, knowing the answer.
I don’t even reply.
“Stay home babe, just me and you.”
“I love you, Doris, but you’re hassling me.” I get up, and see my brown pin-striped suit piled on the wooden floor. There was a time it looked good. “Any clean shirts, doll?” I ask. The object of my love does not reply. I wash my face, and wipe the loose dirt from the shirt I’m wearing. Can’t close it at the neck these days. I put on a tie, also open at the neck. I look in the mirror, and pull my cap over my eyes so I don’t have to recognise myself. I look like shit but the music is calling. “I’m cutting,” I say.
Outside, the air is damp and cold. I get a cab to Greenwich Village and hit the bars, blagging drinks from anyone I know. I’m pretty loaded as I leave Hewitt’s bar and head for the club. The skies suddenly release a storm of rain. By the time I reach the club, my suit is twice as heavy as when I set out. Needed a wash anyway.
It’s about midnight when I get to The Open Door, a stucco fronted building near Washington Square. It looks uninviting, except for the sign outside “One night only - Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and band. Til late.”
The entrance is run down. There are guys smoking and shouting. Cap over my eyes, I somehow ease through without any contact and head for the stairs to the basement. The staircase is steep, dark and narrow, almost like entering a pit, the walls are black and damp to the touch. Are the walls sweating? The sound of music drifts through the air. It’s ‘Round about Midnight’.
At the basement entrance, the fug of smoke in the room is so thick it’s like a physical barrier. The smell is hash and tobacco, with the odour of male sweat and sickly sweet perfume. Breathing is an effort too. And the heat makes your skin prickle.
I get used to it quickly as the music connects to my brain. This might be someone’s vision of hell, but with heavenly music keeping despair at bay. This is my world and I love it.
A search light, like those you’ve seen at the movies in wartime London, restlessly throws silver columns through the haze. The place is jammed; there are small tables where four people could sit comfortably but with eight to ten people crowded round each. No tablecloths. Some have lights. Some don’t. Waiters squeeze between tables delivering drinks without a spill. They are greeted at each table like long lost friends.
The waiter asks if I want a seat. He finds the last one in the back corner between two dank walls. I order two doubles, “Any food, sir?” he asks. The idea of eating in this place seems crazy but I’ve had nothing for 24 hours. “Just chicken, man,” I reply. “Anything with that?” “Yeah, more chicken,” and I laugh. He doesn’t.
Most of the light is at the front of the room where the band is blazing. Behind them a huge mural of a reclining naked woman gives you something else to look at. I take a joint from my top pocket. It’s damp but I get it to light. People around me look - in envy. “Hey, butt me man,” one guy says. I don’t. I need this as much as I need the food. I notice that my suit is beginning to steam as it warms. The smoke and steam rising makes me look like Beelzebub. No one cares.
The band is hitting its stride and the punters are into it. The audience is about half black, half offay, mainly guys but some babes too. At the next table an older white guy sits with a beautiful dark haired white girl. The heat has made her remove her short jacket and put it on the back of her chair. Her shoulders are naked and slender. The guy is making moves like a professional wrestler, but she looks like she can take care of herself. She sees me staring and briefly returns my gaze. It’s not so much a ‘come hither’ look as a ‘fuck you, loser’ look. It doesn’t stop me. The thought of kissing those shoulders begins to arouse me, so I get back into the music.
The band ends ‘Midnight’ and the place goes wild. Diz is at the mike, his voice raspy. He’s wearing a red beret, a black double breasted leather jacket, like a high class biker might wear at a society ball. He has a goatee and dark glasses. “Thank you everyone,” Diz tells the audience. “Many of you will have noticed that the Bird has flown tonight. We hope he will be here soon.”
There’s a spare mike stand and a Charlie Parker sized gap next to Diz. The band starts up the next number ‘Scrapple from the Apple’. Diz blows hard on the trumpet hitting unfeasibly high notes time and again. His face and neck inflate into a huge distorted bubble, like some giant obscene bullfrog. Mingus is on the big bass, an instrument he dwarfs. A huge bear of a man, his skin is lighter than the others but his face is darkened by a rough beard. His jacket, already showing dark patches of sweat, strains at his huge girth. A man with a temper, some say he carries a gun. He frowns throughout, but his big fingers are incredibly dextrous as he commands his booming instrument.
Monk is on piano. Porkpie hat, dark suit and whiskers, his angular frame makes him appear unusual, even abnormal. He audibly groans and moans as he plays, poking and prodding at the keys, like you’d prod someone who drove into your car in the street. Accusatory. His playing is rhythmical but spare. More left out than left in. Even this audience doesn’t always get it. But I do. On drums is the bespectacled Max Roach, moving with ease around his kit, forcing the band on, not just keeping the beat, but somehow implying it, playing around it. He looks happy, delirious.
The pace of the music is furious. Technically challenging, it’s a fiery, emotional cauldron of sound. And I love it.
Around the front of the stage young men sit at the tables with their horns - saxes, trumpets, one guy with a trombone - hoping to be able to jam with the band at the end of the night.
About half way through ‘Scrapple’, we all see a large black guy with soulful eyes enter the club, and walk with purpose, and a slight sway, towards the band, where he stands motionless in front of the stage. There seems to be some expectation from the audience, but Mingus, without stopping, bellows, “Sit down, motherfucker!”, and the guy disappears in an instant. The audience realises that this is not the gentleman they were expecting. You can feel the disappointment in the room.
My chicken arrives. It’s all legs and wings. How many New York sparrows had to die for this? I leave the cutlery and use my fingers. The chicken’s hot and greasy and it suffices.
To a tumult of applause, the band ends ‘Scrapple’. Diz bows theatrically. There is some inaudible talk now between Diz and members of the audience. And people look to the back of the room. The search light is trained to the corner where I am smoking. Even as I put my hand over my eyes, it illuminates my table and blinds me. Diz yells, “Bird, what you doing back there? Get up here, man!”
“Stay cool, man. My horn is in hock,” I reply.
“Don’t give me that jive. Someone give that man an alto.” Five or six people rush towards me from the darkness as I stand. I pass the end of my joint to the guy who asked, then wipe the remaining chicken grease from my hands onto my jacket as I take the first horn offered. The search light is still on me, I advance slowly towards the stage, catching the beautiful brown eyes of the girl at the next table. Her expression is different now. I imagine for a second making those brown eyes really light up.
Diz announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the genius Mr. Charlie Parker.” The audience is now applauding, some standing. As I step onto the stage, Diz kisses me square on the mouth, as is his custom. Max grins. Monk does not turn, keeping his focus on the piano keys, and Mingus glares.
Diz announces, “And now ‘Ce Soir a Tunis’ – ‘A Night in Tunisia’.” I put the horn to my mouth and blow as if my life depends on it. I know it does.
Copyright John Holland 2013
The Open Door won second-prize in the Momaya Press annual short story competition 2013. And was published in Music - Momaya Press Annual Short Story Review 2013 (anthology) in November 2013. Then in The Best Stories in a Decade (Momaya Press) in December 2013.
Another new bar tonight. I cross myself as I enter. Always another new bar. In Manhattan. This one two blocks from the basement apartment. Always a basement apartment.
The bar is dark. No one wants to see. A single mirrored strip light behind the bar creates silhouettes. Turns people into ghosts. Rows of bottles reflect the light. Shining beer pumps like altar pieces. Stained silvered ashtrays on the dark wood counter. There’s a few in but it’s early. The booths against the wall have small table lamps, like ones for children, glowing low red. They light the faces of the people in the booths. They look like the devil’s disciples. Maybe they are. It’s no business of mine.
I drink Coors. Cold and tasteless. Nothing strong that might impair. A mist of smoke adds to the gloom. I can taste it. Touch it. It’s camouflage. I can use it.
The juke box is loud but that’s ok. Who wants to listen to anyone else? No one is paying so it plays what it likes. Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye – soulful sounds sung by angels. Angels with pain in their hearts.
Right now, there’s only me sitting at the bar. But that will change. Has to change. The bartender, tall, grizzled, in white, is ok. Not inquisitive. Lets me be. No need for anything fancy like smiles or thanks. I go to the john. It’s dark and stinks. Wash my face. Look at my reflection. Test my resolve. There’s a dim light at the top of the mirror. Like a halo casting shadows on my face. Eye sockets darker. Cheekbones sharper. Jagged. It hides the creases in my black jacket. It’s a warm evening. I don’t need a jacket but it’s like a uniform. Jacket, white shirt open at the neck, skinny black tie. Part of the ritual. The routine. I smooth back my black hair with my wet hands. Head back to the bar. Two women are now seated at the other end of the bar. Cigarette pack on the bar. As I take my stool I can feel their eyes. They say something and laugh. They keep looking. I raise my glass from the bar. Tip it a little towards them in a kind of toast and put it to my lips. They laugh again. It’s a friendly laugh. I don’t look at them. They’re not what I want.
It’s Friday evening. The losers will be in. On their own. Thousands of saps stream in from out of town, like herds of wildebeest, to the city’s watering holes. Innocent. Ignorant. The weakest are picked off.
One arrives. Wearing a seersucker suit that’s too small. His heft strains against the cloth. His eyes like pinballs. Darting. Anxious. Takes a stool somewhere between the women and me. His ass hangs over the stool. His forehead and neck are red. Rivulets of sweat irrigate his face. Orders a double Wild Turkey. Slugs it. Wipes his mouth with his hand. Looks at the back of his hand. Orders another. Prime sap, I think. Sometimes - just sometimes – they are sharper than they look. And escape. I watch him. He stares at the women. They look away. He speaks to them. Can’t hear what. They don’t smile. He takes his stool over. Asks them what they’re drinking. “Just leaving,” they say, butting their cigarettes. They stand, picking up the pack of Camels and dropping a note on the bar. Move towards the door. As they pass, the dark one looks at me. She’s wearing a cross.
It’s time now.
“Wasting your time,” I say.
“Lesbians, “ he says, like it’s the only possible reason. Now his whole face is red. An inflated rubber globe. His hair short, crinkled. A nest emerges from the top of his shirt.
“Yeah,” I say. He says it’s warm. He isn’t wrong. I offer to buy him a drink. He’s nervous but agrees. I’m all smiles, cheery, friendly. Like I have to be. We talk about bourbon. His likes and dislikes. He’s definitely a Wild Turkey man. Not Jim Beam. Never Maker’s Mark. He doesn’t ask me mine. That’s fine. He talks drink, sport, politics. I introduce myself. Tonight I am Joe. His name is Dean. He lives upstate. Alone these days after his wife left - the bitch, he says - and wants fun. I think I wouldn’t want to join in any fun that Dean’s having. Someone puts Jimmy Smith on the juke box. It sparks, swings, fizzes. Like a soundtrack to our lives. Dean’s and mine.
“Fun, eh? “ I say, trying to look thoughtful, and get him another double. He protests, but not much. I tell him about a place I know. Where there’s girls. He’s interested. The sweat is pearled in droplets in his wire hair.
“Listen,” I say. “I’m only telling you this cos I like you, Dean.” Use his name. Always use their stupid names. “But I have a sister who is a little, well, unusual.” He gives me a sideways look. “I’d really like her to meet someone like you - a regular guy, ‘stead of all the God-hating perves in this city.” He wants to know how she is unusual. He’s still not relaxed so this had better be good.
“Her name is Estelle, and I look after her, “ I say. “She’s 18 but she has a rare condition - a clinical addiction. We’ve been to specialists but there’s nothing they can do.”
”Junkies ain’t for me,” he says.
“It isn’t drugs, or alcohol,” I say. I pause. “It’s sex. She’s addicted to sex. Her comfort is not a needle or a bottle, but the arms of men.” I look intently at him, so no matter how dumb he is he gets it. And he does. “Really,” he says, wiping his mouth again.
And then I take it away from him. “Sorry I said anything, Dean. You probably want someone a bit more experienced. Older. Less innocent. Than Estelle.” I start to get up from my stool to leave. He grabs my sleeve. He says he wants to talk more. Orders a Coors for me. Another double for himself.
So I say how Estelle is also beautiful. “You wanna see a pic?” To build the tension I take too long finding the picture in my wallet. I might not have it. Might have left it behind. It’s a little monochrome shot of a young woman. The one I use every time. The picture is out of focus. Frayed at the edges, creased. She stands next to a tree. One arm is above her head vertical against the trunk of the tree. You can’t see where the tree ends and she starts. Her body is female; her figure obvious. He holds it in his sweating sausage hands. Strains his eyes to see.
“Can’t really make her out,” he says. Hands it back.
“Would you like to meet her?” I ask. “There’s just the two of us. We only live two blocks away.”
His eyebrows form arches like you see in Paris. I say it will be ok. That we should go now. I buy beer. In a brown paper sack. No one cares about the guy and me leaving together. It’s cooler in the street. We drink as we walk. But the traffic noise puts distance between us. I have to shout. I feed him snippets. Keep him reassured. She’s tall with dark hair; only likes one night stands; occasionally works as a model; wants to be an actress.
But a block in - at Pitt Street and Stanton, right outside the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows - he baulks.
“This is a ruse, isn’t it? You’re taking me for a sucker. How do I know your sister will be there? Or even that you have a sister. That could be anyone in the picture. You’re gonna beat my brains out and take my cash.”
I pause. I look up at the church - shrouded in the city’s mist - towering upwards. I’ll let him go, I think. Show him mercy. But we’re nearly at the apartment. Nearly there. The ritual - the routine - kicks back in. I act offended. Call his bluff. Tell him I’m doing him a favour. “Walk away then,” I say. “See if I care.” I begin to run from him, the remaining bottles keeping my speed down. He’s after me. Apologising.
He can’t be deterred. “I’m sorry, Joe. I can’t wait to meet her,” he says, as we reach my building. It’s a tired old brown stone place. A flight of iron railed stairs with missing stones ascends to the front door. But we are going to the basement. He follows me down the tight crumbling steps. There is only darkness through the glazed door. I turn my key. We enter. I quieten him in case, I say, she’s asleep. And he’s as good as gold now. And as good as mine.
Inside the apartment dark corridors emerge. It’s hot. Really hot. Doorways are silent. Inscrutable. In the air dampness, smoke, a hint of disinfectant. Runnells of water seep from the fissures in the dank walls. I walk him through to the main room. Not much in the way of furniture. An old sideboard with a deck. An orange standard lamp next to the rectangular grey sofa throws a circular patch of light. No cushions. The stains on the sofa don’t show too bad in its shadow. The floor is a pitted scrappy mess. Where I had to take up the carpet.
There is no noise except from the window. He walks over. Looks up. Shoes, boots, trainers tread by. Passing disembodied voices from another world. We are below the earth.
“Where is she?” he asks.
“Let’s have a drink,” I say. The sweat rolls down my back. There’s a bottle of Jack, a third full, on the side. Three sticky glasses. I can’t go wash them. And leave him. I pour two. We throw them back. Dean takes out a pack of Chesterfields. Lights up. Then another two Jacks. I put on a record. Has to be Marvin. The needle drops onto ‘Trouble Man’. It hisses at us.
I gesture at a door at the other side of the room. “She’s in there,” I say. “She’ll know we’re here.” He stares blankly at the door - cigarette brown, scuffed, plastic handle.
“Get her”, he says. He looks crazy.
“She’ll be here when she’s ready,” I say.
“Get her,” he says again. I walk to the door, tap and enter. I am back in seconds.
“She’s coming,” I say. “Getting ready for you.” My stomach hurts and my head feels like a 747 is landing in it. I freshen the Jacks. He stands with his drink. Waiting. His eyes burning holes in the door.
The door opens.
I watch his face. She walks into the room with the scent of perfume. Dark chaotic hair falls over much of her face. Black eyes. Red mouth. Tall. Proud. Lithe. Long necked. A fragile peach-coloured silk robe to the floor. Healed slippers emerging as she walks. An unlit cigarette in her right hand. Her left arm across her slim waist. Her face expressionless. She moves towards us to the rhythm of the music, her breasts in gentle motion. Places her long-fingered hand, red nails, on his shoulder. Looks into his face. Dean might just explode. The record ends, the needle thrashing again and again on the run-off grooves.
“Put it on again, Joe, sweet boy,” she says without looking at me.
“What’s a poor girl got to do to get a light from a kind gentleman?” She is now in control. About to have her fun. And she likes to play roles. Tonight a young Blanche Dubois. Her favourite. Like Blanche she’s not young and she’s no southern belle. Dean pays no heed. He’s caught in her aura. Fumbles his lighter but gets it right second time. She takes a breath of smoke. Throws back her head. The grey vapour oozes from her mouth. ‘Trouble Man’ curls languorously from the speakers. Her hands on both his shoulders now. She begins to move her body against his bulk. Swaying, her hips creating circles. Hypnotised, he tries to sway with her. Sweat darkening his shirt, his jacket. Desire in his thick arms. His crude hands. Pain grabs my guts.
“What a fine gentleman, you are, sir.” She talks in the third person. Like she’s observing herself. “A girl feels so blessed to have the protection of a gallant and handsome gentleman.” She lays her head on his shoulder.
“I will protect you, Estelle,” he blurts. She almost laughs, nearly loses it.
“My room is meagre, sir, nay, frugal, but you are welcome to call on me on this most clement evening. You may wish to tarry a while. To pay your homage.” Dean grunts, his clothes steaming.
She walks to her room. Serpentine, her back sinuous, perfect. She opens the door, bows gently and ushers him in. Her eyes dark. Greedy. She doesn’t look at me as she closes the door. I hear the key turn. The first part has begun. I stare at the closed door as I have done many times before. This is God’s punishment.
My head is ashes. My guts an Icelandic geyser. I walk the corridor to my room. Strip in the darkness. Take a tab to blank it out. Lay on my bed praying for peace. Begging for the oblivion of sleep.
But when sleep eventually comes I am awakened by a bright light that hurts my eyes. I squint into it, but I do not feel afraid. The light is cooling. Lustrous. Filling the whole room. White. Coruscating. Resplendent. I move towards it. The walls disappear. I follow the light. Am drawn into it. And then I am floating in the light. The apartment does not exist. There is no city. Just pure light. I hold my arms wide to take in its perfection. My body, my soul cleansed. I feel elated. Euphoric.
I hear the thud of the cellar door and wake. The darkness pours in. Ink blotting out the light. I want to return to the dream but cannot. I hear the bolting of the cellar door. The second part. I do not know if I hear cries of pain, screams or if they are just memories. I hold myself. Desperate to return to the light.
Before morning I know that she will come to me. Her dark eyes like mad bees. Disposal. Clean up will begin. The third part. I will wretch and cry. She will hold me. Kiss me. Stroke my hair. She will beg for my forgiveness. For my worthless absolution. I will tell her about the light. Again about God’s salvation. About redemption.
And she will put her face close to mine. Look into my eyes. And pledge her love to me.
Copyright John Holland 2013
Trouble Man was runner-up in a multi.story.co.uk crime/mystery short story competition in April 2013, and published in the Marble City Publishing anthology Knife Edge in May 2013