Being Useful

Given the many valid reasons for wanting to kill Morton Overwham already on record, it’s always surprising when someone discovers a new one. Who is the jaded brat in the sweetshop of hatred who sees nothing to be tempted by in all the jars lining the walls? Just look at Morton’s hair, just listen to his laugh. The general shape of him filling this Earth’s rapidly dwindling space. His whole life can be viewed as one long attempt to paint a durable target on his own forehead. And I would be supportive of this if I wasn’t dependent on his half of the rent.

The occasion of this novelty in anti-Overwham thought was a standard beige Thursday. As is usual for a weekday I was sitting outside a café in the centre of town, witnessing. Just sitting there and looking actively at what was passing, seeing whatever might be happening. Witnessing stuff. And as sometimes happens a figure stopped, looked at me and detached itself from the passing crowd.

‘You!’ the man said. He was wearing dark glasses and a t-shirt with Criminal! printed on it. ‘Of all the people I might expect to bump into!’

He approached my table. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here at’ – he looked at his watch – ‘1105 precisely, on the second day of March.’

He repeated the time and date, slowly and precisely while surveying the crowded street, then asked me to take a photo of him on his phone. I made sure to get the clock tower in the picture.

From a couple of streets away came the sound of an alarm. He turned unhurriedly to look in that direction. ‘That sounds quite far away,’ he said. I agreed with him.

‘Well anyway. See you around!’ He went back into the crowd and disappeared.

I wrote down some details in the notebook I always carried with me, in case it might be useful the next time I was in court. Law enforcement tend to approach me when they need to back up an alibi, sometimes even before a crime has been committed. The system is swift and efficient and saves everyone a deal of trouble.

I had still not finished my coffee when there was a clatter of a chair being moved and then sat in.

‘Good that you’re here, as this will save us time.’

Morton Overwham. Look at him now, with his needless smile like he’d stolen it off a richer and more talented person’s face. Look at him sink back in the chair opposite you and announce, in tones too proud to be helpful, that –

‘Of all the eff ups’

Pause.

‘I have ever been party to – and you and I know’

Pause.

‘That is more than a few… I have no idea how to complete that sentence. So in lieu of a fancy choir to sing the edge off it we find ourselves facing the bones of the issue. You are not going to like this.’

‘I already don’t like it. It has your face on it and your words announcing it, whatever it might be.’

No way Morton could be speaking to me if the upshot were not something that would appreciably lessen my quality of life. All the more so when a smile is attached.

‘I was at work yesterday. Doing my busy work thing. You know how it is. The old nine to five, eh? The Monday morning blues. The … the Man. That kind of thing.’

Morton had been given paid employment three months ago and had spent the intervening time trying to find out why. To this end his working day involved following other people who looked like they know what they were doing, in the hope that it would soon enough turn a powerful light on his own case. He had always suspected, as did I and all the others who know him, that the whole issue rested on a very real and regrettable mistake.

‘So yesterday was a van day. I was in a van, going to here and to there and a couple of other places in between. The van was carrying turf. We were a turf van. This is fact one. Fact two – we went to the big house.’

‘The?’ In my dealings with Morton I have always tried to stress the time issue, to let him know that my time is valuable and generally unable to support prolonged exposure to his company. Unfortunately he knows the truth, and exploits this mercilessly.

He nodded, and stuffed a sugar cube in his mouth. ‘Exactly. The house itself. House number one in this town and environs. His house.’

I leaned forwards. ‘Rex?’ I whispered.

‘And there I was thinking he was above such things. Whatever kind of presence he exercises here wouldn’t stretch to a physical representation, I thought, let alone to a proper house with a garden and front door and suchlike.’

He marked the end of this sentence by drinking deeply from a coffee cup, while my own had strangely disappeared.

‘So they were laying turf, and I was doing my bit by standing behind them watching. I looked up at a window and saw what I suppose you could call a face looking back at me. I stepped back to get a better view and trod on – a lettuce.’

He turned to watch the passing traffic. I knew what he was looking for – the sense of intelligence pooled, the whispering and the looks and the surreptitious phone call. Everyone in town worked for Rex, whether they knew it or not, and information spread like a badger on a motorway.

It struck me I would have to find a new flatmate.

‘And then, because I’d stumbled and felt a bit stupid, I doubled down on it. I stamped on that lettuce a couple more times. Like that was what I’d meant to do the whole time. Stamped the shit out of it. All the while looking up at Rex and grinning.

‘With hindsight this may have made it worse.’

Morton for once had a point. It was traditionally the lesser offences which Rex treated the most harshly. Someone might step so briefly over the line that they hadn’t even noticed they had done it. Then the order would go out and the town’s blade sharpeners and street cleaners would be working weekends again. Treat the trivial with brutality and no one ever aspired to greater assaults against his name.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not like him to be vindictive or cruel.’

I would write the advert that afternoon, I decided.

‘I know you’re trying to be kind –’

Ha.

‘But I’ve been thinking it over and come to a conclusion. Tldr: we need to get we gone.’

We? This affects me how?’

He began walking away, looking over his shoulder and grinning like a murder victim. ‘Well, due to an administrative error he thinks I’m you.’

We spent the next couple of hours working on our plan. It wouldn’t do just to run, to simply do a classic escape. We needed a bluff, one which could support the weight of our departure. A bluff which could hold its head up proud and lie solemnly to your face while it pissed in your shoes. Or a bluff which could say confidently ‘yes, I am a bluff,’ and leave the listener uncertain as to what was up and what was down.

Rex’s people would be expecting us to fill a bag with useful or sentimental crap and then flee, zigzagging around the place, under darkness and disguised like a priest or like your grandma, ostentatiously being subtle to the point where getting on a train looked like a masterclass in how never to get on a train in a normal world. They would be relying on Morton’s mastery of Scottish accents or my skill in folding a newspaper outside a foreign café to give us away. They would be expecting a long game in which we, or future agents won over to our cause in successive generations, would lead them a merry dance through time and the many places of the globe.

What they were not expecting was that we would hold a glitzy yet maudlin Hurried Leaving Party at the Swollen Dog, the pub where we had spent four nights in every seven for the last two years. They were not expecting the bunting, the specially made doggy bags or the playlist of departure songs we commissioned. A packed room filled with friends wearing our faces on their t-shirts.

‘They may be just two more losers by the quiz machine,’ Joely the landlady shouted into her microphone, ‘but they’re our losers. And tonight we’re all losers!’

Party poppers went off, glitter was strewn liberally and old hands and random newbies all told us how sad they were that we were going to be murdered. Morton gave a speech about how humbled he was to be threatened by gangsters, complete with a puppet cabaret and a moving slideshow of our years of acquaintance. Later, past closing time, I read out some stirring poetry to the packed house before leading the chant ‘we will try not to be murdered.’

They definitely weren’t expecting us to do it all again the next night.

The Saturday morning we made our way to the station, rucksacks a-clank with glasses we’d somehow stolen from the pub. A good crowd came to see us off, old friends and new, many still drunk from the night before. Saint Pancras had probably never played host to so many vuvuzelas before, nor quite so many balloon animals. Morton and I had had dummies of ourselves made, so accurately rendered that even our own mothers – whoever they were! – couldn’t tell us apart. These we left by the Eurostar gates, to any observers nothing less than two hungover fugitives from gangland reprisals.

‘So,’ said Morton, after the pub friends had said their goodbyes. ‘Home?’

‘The stick insects won’t feed themselves.’

We dawdled a bit on the way back, taking a detour to snag some privet. The sky seemed less oppressive somehow. It was a comforting slate shade of grey, a pathetic rain dripping itself lazily through the gaps in the nothing at all. Perfect weather for staying inside and looking out the window with a complete absence of reaction either positive or otherwise.

‘Where do you think old Rex will be now in his cycle of awareness?’ Morton asked as he put the kettle on.

‘Well, we’re in the last place he’d look. Given his laziness that means there are only three other places he’d look first, but on the upside we’ve got a bank holiday between us and then.’

‘Time to conjure with.’

‘Way enough time. Rex is someone who reacts, not someone who consolidates.’

I updated my Facebook status to ‘fleeing’, accompanied by a nail-chewing emoji.

‘You know, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn his skin was only painted on,’ Morton said. ‘And that what we thought of as his voice were merely the sound of wind echoing around an empty skull. Just think – a whole power base built up around the accidental pretence of a human.’

‘Unfortunately a pretence armed with … well, with whatever he has.’

‘In the absence of better information we should assume the worst. And then imagine scraping beneath that to find something still bleaker and more realistic.’

We’d all seen him, worst luck, Tollund man in the back of a limo, a greater darkness behind tinted windows. Eye sockets so deep you thought eyes weren’t the worst of what they hid. He cruised around these streets like you might stroll through your own garden, marvelling at the stuff you owned.

Every business and every employee was under his tatty wings. Even the ones who stole from the others. All of it served his pockets or his vanity. He was the gaps between the people and as such we would require enormous powers of imagination to find a way around this.

Imagination soon exhausted, there remained the dismal task of killing time until we could poke our heads out again.

‘There’s always the horse racing.’

‘The horse what?’

‘Racing.’

And Morton explained horse racing to me. The gist of it was this: a number of horses race at the same time, in parallel to each other. Each runs very fast, trying to run faster than each of the others and at the end, after a set distance has been run, the winner is crowned best horse in the race, with all the financial and social advantages thus accruing. The explanation, with its extensive use of whiteboard and Powerpoint, meant that by the time we got round to turning the television on we had missed the races themselves.

The winning horses crowned, the less successful horses drowned in a canal, I returned to the kitchen and the kettle. As I did so I passed the large window at the front of the flat. A human-sized shadow was currently filling it, blocking what tepid light remained in the universe. Sneaking may have been the intention, but that window was unreliable at the best of times and navigating the outside of it in a drizzle like this was far from the best of times. He made his way round the flapping pane and banged his head once or twice against the frame before tumbling in and falling over the sofa.

‘Ah,’ said Gregor the burglar, looking up.

I looked at him, down there on the floor.

‘Ah now, this is awkward,’ he said. ‘To be honest I was expecting the place to be empty. Have I got the right address?’

‘This is never the right address,’ I said, ‘but yes.’

‘Is that Gregor?’ called Morton from the bathroom. ‘What does he want?’

He’s here to burgle us. You are, aren’t you?’

He nodded. ‘I mean, I was. I was expecting to find the place empty.’

‘It is,’ I said. ‘Wherever we are it isn’t here. This is the one place we definitely are not.’

‘Then you can understand my confusion.’

‘Confusion is one thing we do understand,’ Morton said, and laughed too long.

‘I’m sorry to have put you to trouble,’ Gregor said. ‘I shall say my farewells and get right back out of that window.’

‘That sounds good to me,’ said Morton

‘I’m afraid we can’t let that happen,’ I said, moving between the man and the window.

‘You can’t?’

He looked at the window, then at the door, as if measuring up distances and calculating wind speeds.

‘You’ve come here to an empty flat. Why would you leave straight away with your bag empty?’

‘Maybe there was nothing to my liking.’

‘Really? An empty flat, unlimited time, and you find nothing at all that’s worth taking? If nothing else it’s a huge insult to the occupants, if they were here to hear it.’

‘I meant no insult,’ he shook his head, smiling. ‘I would happily steal everything you’ve got here, this … vase. This … dented champagne bucket. That … whatever that is.’

He indicated an item next to the TV. I had no idea what it was meant to be either. We had just acquired it somehow, and realised that before we could throw it away we would first need the words to describe it.

‘Everyone misses the door,’ said Morton. ‘That is far and away the most valuable item in here.’

‘Never mind us,’ I said, ‘think about how it looks to them.’ I pointed to the wider world, situated conveniently out of the window. ‘They see you giving up, not even taking the time to smash anything or desecrate the furnishings in the way you find most fitting. What would they think?’

‘And perhaps more importantly, what would your old bossman think?’ asked Morton.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It would give them the mistaken impression that you’re still here.’

‘So,’ I said, stepping away and holding out my arms to encompass the whole domain. ‘You wouldn’t want to be leaving here without taking one item. And better make it something substantial or we’re all wasting our time here.’

He picked up his rucksack from the floor and shook it out. ‘Where do you keep your valuables then?’

Morton shook his head sadly. ‘We can’t help you. It wouldn’t be right.’

Gregor walked slowly around the living room, humming to himself to complete the illusion of not being flanked by other humans, not ones with functioning ears at any rate. He proceeded to the kitchen, the bedrooms, finally – and with slower pace – to the bathroom.

‘You’ve lived here how long?’

‘Two years,’ said Morton.

‘And you’ve filled every inch of the place with tat, yet somehow never got round to getting anything worth stealing.’

‘It’s a useful means of defence against a world stacked so much against us,’ I said. ‘Like making sure you always get a seat on the bus by living somewhere no one in their right mind would ever want to go.’

‘Jesus.’ He lit a roll up. ‘What about that then,’ he said at last, having gazed in silence at a patch on the wall for a while.

‘That? Yeah, why not.’

It was a painting from the feverish dying dreams of a petty colonial overseer, to wit the depiction of a cricket match in the blandest tones imaginable, small figures in white picked out against dim strokes of green while a nice old church mouldered comfortably behind. An image only slightly less tedious than the bare wall underneath. It had been hanging there when we moved in, inexplicably left behind by a former tenant, and it had defied any attempts to remove it via the heavy grip of ennui stirred up by the simple act of looking at it.

Gregor gently took it down from its hooks and gazed into its aggressive inoffensiveness. ‘This takes me back to my youth,’ he said.

‘You used to play cricket?’

‘I used to steal paintings.’

I looked at my watch. ‘I’d say that’s a respectable time for a burglary. It’s okay if you go now.’

‘Right you are.’ He headed towards the door.

Umm.’ I inclined my head to the window.

‘Ah,’ he chuckled. ‘Of course. Take care, gents!’

Painting tucked under one armpit, he backed out over the sill, using his free hand to navigate the drainpipes and the two floors to street level. The window slammed shut reassuringly in the renewed breeze.

‘I think this calls for a gin,’ said Morton, for all the world as if this was not something he said every day at this time.

We were on the second when the door buzzed in that way that always grates on the nerves. I looked through the Judas hole and saw a young woman with impressively frizzy hair and a man dressed in a very convincing police uniform.

 

‘Tell them we’re out,’ Morton said.

I looked through the spyhole again and saw that the woman was now holding up a piece of paper on which she had written Please don’t waste my time.

‘Overwham?’ she said as I opened the door. She looked from one face to the other, then shook her head. ‘Don’t know why I’m asking. One or both of you is, and that’s all that matters. Here’s my card.’

She handed over a business card on which was printed Zimena Furuncle, above the words You don’t want to know.

‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way. What am I saying? It’s all easy.’

She pushed past into the living room, police friend following behind.

‘You’ve no doubt clocked the uniform,’ she said. ‘It will save a lot of time the sooner you recognise an agent of Rex is an on-duty police officer. If you’re looking for nuance you’re in the wrong place. I could show you the velvet glove but life is short and we all have homes to go to.’

She walked into the kitchen with all the nonchalance of a drunk estate agent. Morton put on his best incredulous face, squinting and shaking his head in a way he wanted to think looked like convincing innocence, before saying ‘I have absolutely no idea –‘

‘Which of these seven types of coffee is the best?’ she asked, putting the kettle on. I pointed to the bag of Tajikistan’s finest and PC Nameless saw to it while she climbed onto the worktop and sat there cross-legged.

‘First of all. You remember that one teacher you had who saw the good in you? You felt that they alone could see through your crude exterior and find something of value underneath? They thought there was something worthwhile about you and sought to cultivate it and nurture it so that you could achieve all that you were truly capable of?

‘They were wrong. You have always been completely worthless. I can’t emphasise firmly enough just how insignificant you are and always will be. It is a struggle for me just to stay awake in your presence. In all honesty the pair of you are just blurry messes at the edge of my vision.

‘Perhaps you think you have somehow been an inconvenience to my boss and yours. It is extremely important that you realise just how impossible this is. If Rex is an ocean liner then you are the memory of lice who once stalked a scalp a thousand miles and three generations away. You are nothing to him. The message I want you to take from this is that of your own triviality, reckoned both cosmically and locally.’

She slurped her coffee.

‘Not worth … killing then?’ Morton asked, rubbing chin between thumb and finger.

‘Rex operates on a level of consciousness far removed from yours, to the extent that he experiences time and all dimensions differently. Your concerns are so petty as not even to register with him as taking place within a valid time-frame.’

‘He’s a dick,’ I noted.

She nodded.

‘By the quotidian standards of three-dimensional mammals, maybe so. His existence takes a parallel trajectory, and the two will never meet in infinity.’ She held her spoon up. ‘Is this solid silver?’

‘So he sent you to reassure us?’ I asked. ‘Not like him.’

I realised I had little idea of what was like him, but felt I had to try. I was standing in my own kitchen possibly being threatened by a stranger after all.

‘There are concessions to be made, however nauseous the climbdown. When the brightest light is extinguished the darkness shows up darker than it ever was before. Rex’s light is approaching extinction.’

‘He’s dying?’ Morton asked.

She shook her head. ‘He is reaching the end of this cycle. Renewal will follow, but in the interim there is vulnerability.’

‘Come again?’ I asked, not unreasonably.

‘Rex places himself outside the realm of human experience. This has its advantages and its drawbacks. While being absolved of the standard procedures for aging he finds himself open to other forms of decay, undreamt of by the – ’she reached into her jacket pocket and glanced at a piece of paper. ‘Meat puppets.’

‘It’s kind of him to clarify,’ said Morton. ‘So we can cancel the whole exile business?’

‘The fact that he can show you no malice should not give you comfort. It just shows how little you mean to him. If you represented any kind of annoyance to him then he would have had you neutralised long ago.’

She sipped that sweet Tajiki blackness.

‘So he says, anyway.’

‘And while he’s vulnerable,’ Morton began. ‘I don’t know how to end that sentence.’

‘Vulnerability is a relative term. One such as he is immeasurably far from your ideas of harm. In his transitional period he needs to surround himself with the things which bring him comfort. Keepsakes, mementoes, souvenirs. The worst thing for him is the time needed to recuperate, and the effort that goes into recovering lost items. Yes, there are lost items to recover. That may be important.’

‘And you, what, you believe this?’

She smiled. She put her cup down and held out her sleeve.

‘Touch it,’ she said.

‘Um.’

‘Feel my sleeve.’

I did so. Her jacket was ostensibly black but with an undercurrent of something iridescent. On feeling it I noticed a subtlety to the fabric not obvious at first. Bumps, stripes, hatching and cross-stitching. It felt extremely expensive.

‘I have no horse in this fight,’ she said. ‘As long as he keeps my employment interesting then that is all.’

She uncrossed her legs and slid off the counter. She looked at me and at Morton.

‘So. That established, there is the other matter. A lost item is to be found. It will aid his recovery if you find it. You are still alive and may be considered useful. This must be the greatest day of your lives.’

She placed a fat envelope on the counter.

‘That might help. Bobby!’

PC Nonentity sat up at this, and followed her to the door.

‘Ha. He’s a policeman and I call him Bobby!’

They left together, shutting the door gently.

‘Nice to have things clarified,’ Morton said, handing me a glass which fizzed away under a blue umbrella.

‘I suppose we should look into this as a matter of urgency,’ I said, throwing the envelope into one corner or another.

Two days later I was looking under the sofa for stray stick insects when I saw the package again. Inside I found three items. First was a sheaf of pages covered in a primitive handwriting which appeared to be Rex’s own, a rambling account in which he circled ever nearer to giving an explanation of something or other. It was as if he had taken a series of words at random from a dictionary and somehow made them all about him. Just what he meant was not certain, but what was clear was his sense of grievance against anything that came before his eyes.

Cutting through the mess of this, another, calmer hand had attempted to impose order, writing the word Testimony at the top of page 1 and at the end the words herewith do I, the abovementioned, entreat the undersigned parties to fulfil required expectations, may the gods damn us otherwise and may misery be our sole remaining experience in the life left to us, plus space to sign.

The second item was a steak knife. It had a comfortable wooden handle, like the knife you’ve always dreamt of owning.

The third item was a map of a coastal town two hours’ drive away, reduced to all locations within the radius of a twenty minute walk. On occasional junctions someone had written large question marks.

‘So what do you think?’ I asked.

‘He really needs to have a word with himself, doesn’t he?’

‘I mean the map.’

He pondered a moment. ‘Well. There are question marks. I’m guessing he wants us to ask questions.’

‘Ask who? And what?’

He shrugged. ‘We’ll work something out. There aren’t that many questions.’

He poured another and that was pretty much it for the night.

The next morning crawled out of the dark as if surprised by its own existence. Under a clay-coloured sky drizzle seeped and clung to your face like the breath of a sick dog. We took the train to the sea, and got off amid a rustle of black gowns and wimples.

‘Maybe he wants us to scope out retirement homes,’ I said, watching a gaggle of nuns proceeding carefully down the steep, cobbled hill. In the station car park were two seagulls fighting over the crumbs of a former squirrel.

I took the map out from my pocket. The nearest of the question marks was a short walk away, located in Chambers Road. On arrival we stood for a moment staring straight ahead, as if there were something we should be seeing.

‘To be honest, I was expecting something more.’

Morton looked around. ‘More than this? It has some nice, I don’t know, Edwardian terracing. There’s a well-tended skip over there. I can think of worse places to be doing precisely whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘The map shows a big question mark. And where there’s a big question there’s a big answer. I don’t see any answers here.’

I stood back as a pair of nuns walked past us and turned to watch them on their way.

‘Not yet,’ Morton said. He turned in a slow circle, looking up at the roofs, before shouting ‘who?

The nuns stopped suddenly, and turned to look at us. One of them caught my eye and scowled. She rolled her sleeve up to the elbow and with her free hand mimicked a syringe being inserted in the elbow crease. That’s what it looked like. Then the scowling pair turned and continued serenely on their way.

‘Um,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Give me the map.’

He led us through the neighbouring streets, a brief route though one which confused in its complexity. Not five minutes later we emerged on Peritrophic Passage. Again, I was almost expecting to see a big punctuation symbol floating above the pavement, assuring us that we were going the right way. From where we had stopped we could see into the gardens of nearby houses. In one they were having a barbecue. A couple of nuns stood around drinking from plastic cups while another nun stood stoically under an umbrella, turning burgers with her other hand.

‘Your turn, I think,’ said Morton.

I looked around, took a deep breath, and called out ‘when?

There was a sudden burst of sizzling heard from the barbecue garden and I turned to see a cloud of smoke being wafted away from under the umbrella. One of the nuns carefully withdrew from the grill a yellowed, folded newspaper, which had got too close to the flames, and tossed it over the fence. I stooped to pick it up and when I glanced back they had regained their composure.

‘Let me see,’ said Morton, and I showed him the front page. It was written in an archaic calligraphy and the headline read – verbatim – ‘LOCAL BUSINESSMAN BLAH DI BLAH GRUDGE.’

Next we swung a right into Superfluous Crescent, which sprouted off the main road like a fattening appendix. We stood in the centre by a small playground area as we sought to locate the question mark. The street was quiet except for the regular creaking of a seesaw, on which sat two nuns, sombre faced as each slowly rose and fell.

‘Where did we get to?’ Morton asked, before answering his own question with another question, hands around his mouth, ‘what?’

The sudden intrusion of sound put the nuns off their stroke. One slipped backwards off the seesaw, causing the other to crash to the ground. She flailed on her back, caught up in her skirts, displaying to the heavens the soles of her shoes. And as we watched she began to wave one shoe emphatically, and waved it again, for all the world like one showing off her shoe.

Fourth and last was situated at the junction where Balls Road met Truncheon Avenue. One nun sat unobtrusively on a bench surrounded by luscious hedges, a large paper bag in her hand. I watched as she swigged deeply from it.

‘Just the one more then we can source us a pub,’ Morton said.

‘Okay,’ I said. I thought for a moment and then, eyes closed, I looked up and yelled ‘where?’

There was a gasp from the bench behind us. The nun stood up suddenly, and as she did so lost her grip on the bottle, which rolled down and down the hill before coming to a stop, dark liquid puddling out around the neck. It was pointing at the one building to be seen amid the greenery.

Morton clasped his hands together, pointing with his index fingers. I followed as he headed towards it.

The automatic doors let us through, and then I realised I had no idea what to say at reception. Fortunately the nun at the desk seemed to be expecting us.

‘Room 17,’ she said. ‘Don’t upset her and don’t stay longer than you have to.’

She returned the unlit pipe to her mouth and drew gently on it.

The patient in room 17 lay with her eyes closed. It was difficult to tell, given the ravages of illness, but she must have been in her 60s at least. Various machines attested to the fact she was still alive and I instantly felt a pang of annoyance on her behalf, that she couldn’t prove this without help.

She opened her eyes, slowly, and looked from Morton to me and back.

‘You’re not how I pictured you,’ she said. ’And Christ knows I’ve had plenty of time to picture things.’

‘And how did you picture us?’ I asked.

‘I thought I would see someone focused, efficient. Not cruel. One eye on the next job. Someone who saw me, and all my concerns, as trivia. Maybe that’s what I truly wanted.

‘To be honest, I will be disappointed if you haven’t come to kill me.’

‘Well,’ said Morton, ‘prepare for the disappointment of your life.’

Her eyes opened fully and looked around placidly. And on her death bed she tutted.

‘What went wrong in your lives that you ended up working for him?’

‘Well,’ said Morton, ‘there’s a bit of a funny story.’

‘I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest,’ I said. ‘And we clearly shouldn’t be here at this time.’ I looked at her drip, at the tube in her nose. ‘We should leave. I don’t know what’s going on here, but it seems too tragic for our involvement.’

I was about to leave, trying to drag Morton with me.

‘Nonsense,’ she interrupted. ‘I’ve had a great life. The end part isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but there’s no way around that. I’ve seen liquids you can’t imagine, coming from places you don’t want to think about. But it’s been mostly fun. I’ve had enough life. I imagine you’ll be more entertaining company than the nursing staff, anyway.

‘You’ll want to know what this is all about. Or you might not. But listening to myself speak is one of the few joys I have left to me, so I will talk all the same. Sit yourselves down and try not to interrupt.’

Before this final journey to the coast, Clem had lived in our town. She told us the tale of a young woman with a troubled past, a difficult family background, escape and renewal. She hadn’t come to town for the advantages it offered but for the lack of hostility it suggested. She could be safe here; she could be her own self again, not a victim nor a walking issue. Though humble of face the town offered opportunities denied her previously.

‘You can’t imagine,’ she said. ‘No offence, but your lives seem very easy.’

She got a good job, then a better, she made money and settled in. Made friends and secured a place for herself. And then one day she went to a shoe shop.

‘Um,’ said Morton.

‘Yes, I know,’ she said. ‘At this point the story gets confused. I looked at a shoe and then nothing. Or something, according to your view.’

So, she looked at a shoe in a shoe shop, wondering whether to buy it or not.

‘I thought I was just looking at shoes as normal. It took three other people to tell me otherwise. Any thoughts?’

As she was in the shoe shop, choosing or not choosing her future footwear, Rex entered.

‘So they say,’ she said. ‘I have no memory of this. But apparently I angered him. Because I was looking at a shoe when he entered, and therefore for the first time in his life he wasn’t the most important thing in the room. A man like that expects to be looked at everywhere he goes, to be welcome or feared. Indifference is the worst thing possible for him. Even owning the town and all the people in it couldn’t do anything for his frail ego.

‘So yes, if you were expecting something more substantial… I had to be told this by others who were present. That’s how trivial a matter it was. People delighted in telling me how I could expect a bullet at any moment.’

‘For forty years,’ I said.

She laughed.

‘Give or take. I ignored it, and prospered. And I see you’re not here to kill me.’

‘Far from it,’ I said. We were sent here to collect something. I can’t tell you what.’

‘A shoe?’

‘It could be anything.’

‘A shoe, for instance.’

‘Like I said, anything.’

She turned to Morton. ‘You could look in the cupboard across the hallway. Maybe it will be obvious.’

Morton left the room; always a bonus.

‘And just why do you hang out with him?’ she asked. ‘He seems a bit of a twat.’

I shrugged. ‘Good question. I just think we’ve become too interknit to survive separately. Sometimes I worry that if we were to go our separate ways he would walk off with half my memories.’

‘Jesus,’ she breathed.

Next Morton returned to the room, clutching a single platform shoe. ‘Is this what you meant?’

‘Whatever,’ she said, and went back to sleep.

We walked back to the station in silence, until Morton stopped suddenly.

‘It even looks like him,’ he said. ‘Yikes.’

I was about to ask what he meant when I looked up and saw the station atop the hill. The two large windows in the front looked like empty eyes in a taut skull. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to think that Rex had designed the building to resemble his face. We continued up the cobbled spine.

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Where have we just been? The base of the … spine?’

I bent over and waited for the vomit spasms to subside.

We didn’t talk on the train home. With or without a death sentence hanging over you life is short, stupid and undignified. That was the lesson I took from the morning. Morton passed the time by doing impressions of all the animals he saw.

At the station on our return was Zimena. She didn’t speak this time, just held out a hand for the shoe which Morton passed over. I couldn’t tell whether this constituted a win or a lose. Maybe even a draw, who can expect more than that in these times and in this world?

Whatever the future held, it seemed our continued subordination was no longer required. We strolled back home with our heads high, sat in the window waving to all and every. At Saint Pancras the next morning our dummies returned, bearded and tanned, wearing shell necklaces and with a new-found look of wisdom in their eyes.

We heard the explosion later that day, like everyone in town. I was making coffee while Morton was engrossed in whatever the hell it is he does with his time. Not long afterwards the doorbell rang. Zimena stood outside, with a man in a navy jumper.

‘You’ve seen the ambulance man’ she said, pointing to the man behind her. ‘This is to show you that the ambulance service are also in our pocket. Bear that in mind if you ever need emergency treatment.’

‘How is the little tyke?’ asked Morton.

‘Unsurprisingly well. While a pipe bomb hidden in a platform shoe might manage to hurt some people it turns out Rex has adequate recombinatory power.’

‘Putting on a brave face then?’

‘Situated as he is at the centre of everything that matters nothing has the power to surprise him.’

‘Worried about losing face, is he?’

‘As nothing happens without his foresight it follows that everything which happens does so with his tacit pre-approval.’

‘A bomb went off in his face, that’s what I’m getting at.’

‘We’re curious about our standing, of course,’ I said. ’It was kind of our fault.’

She nodded. ‘You should be aware that he doesn’t consider you to have any kind of agency. You couldn’t have known the old woman would try to kill him. As you are merely pieces in a game you can never hope to understand it would be ridiculous for him to blame you.’

‘It would be nice to have that in writing.’

She smiled widely. ‘Of course it would. We can do that for you. And how about a big bag of fucking money as well?

She took her hands from her pockets to depict an imaginary bag, then walked away. The ambulance guy shook his head disappointedly and followed.

‘So,’ I said, looking at the time. ‘We could get a takeaway?’

Morton laughed. ‘No lettuce for me!’

‘What?’

‘No lettuce for me!’

‘What?’

‘Given what’s happened. That’s all.’

Tosser.

 

 

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