Ashton slumped on the ratty couch with foam poking through the threadbare upholstery and slipped an almost empty bottle from the inside pocket of his tightly buttoned black overcoat to his lips. The vodka was warm and needed ice. He drank it quickly, regretting his exigency as nausea washed over him. Torching a cigarette he dragged hard. Shoulders loosening, the vodka did not taste so bad anymore. It was cold, brightly lit and windowless inside the back room. Still, Harry was sweating profusely in his white open necked shirt, the material stuck to his corpulent torso. Harry was at the table, crouching forward on the wooden chair, splinters digging into his sagging brown corduroy trousers, chopping the white with a Stanley knife blade. Pausing briefly from his labour, he dipped a finger into the powder, licking the digit with a fat pink tongue. Thin straight lips twisted into a gameshow smile of disturbing acquiescence. Ashton drained the bottle.
"Good, real good," affirmed Harry.
"Thank Christ for that," said Ashton, chastising himself inwardly for neglecting to pick up a quart.
There was a funereal atmosphere pervading the room, which exuded the musty stench of forgotten years. The drab surroundings depressed Ashton, all peeling wallpaper coated with yellowing white paint, and the silence, occasionally punctuated by bouts of Harry's bronchial orchestration, unsettled him as well. Ashton, who had been carrying stuff in his head for a while now and felt painfully sensitive to the external, shifted his bony buttocks on the couch and snorted smoke.
"You seem a little agitated," said Harry.
Ashton stubbed a cigarette and lit another.
"Like you've been sucking on a pipe or something."
"How many runs on this route, Harry?"
Harry leered absently as he played with the rocks, "Since way back."
"And no trouble," said Ashton.
"So?" Harry lifted his face upwards. Ashton shrugged.
"We can cut this and lose it, John," said Harry.
Ashton coughed on a cigarette, his aspect increasingly abstracted. Grunting, Harry shifted his bulk forward on the chair and planted his meaty arms on the table.
"What's with the chops, John Boy, the notes are coming in and you look like the vicar slipped thallium in your tea." Harry giggled, one of those I made a funny giggles.
"Dutch Benny's gone belly up," said Ashton.
Harry's pallor was that of a pool of coagulating blood.
"You can push that Amsterdam thing too much."
"And that's that," said Ashton, extinguishing his last cigarette with considerable regret. Harry didn't smoke. On account of his asthma. Or asmaar, as Harry lisped.
"Yeah, that's that," said Harry, pig squint.
Ashton thought of Dutch Benny. Head like an over ripe tomato. Somethings, eh? Bad connections.
"Dutch Benny was discreet, Harry. For him to go...it means something specific." Ashton's voice bore rare traces of conviction. Harry dismissed his words with a distinctly unambiguous hand gesture.
"Listen John, you and I know with that type you don't think years."
"Benny wasn't the type," replied Ashton. Harry was breathing heavier, harmonica effusions through the aperture of a crimson, fleshy mask. He leaned back on the chair and it creaked ominously, on the verge of succumbing to the behemoth, rocks, white powder and blade strewn before him, a narcotic last supper. Harry scratched the folds of his belly under the white shirt that hung over his waistband in the fashion of a tarpaulin.
"Don't you want me to help cut it and make the drop?" asked Ashton weakly, his stomach slithering down his knees. He felt for the .38 that wasn't there. You only ever used a piece once, and Ashton had carried the same .38 he'd always done, till this night. It was a big room and Harry was on the other side of it. Ashton cast a sideways glance at the door, green paint and cupreous handle.
"I got some lactose stashed at Turner's place. I'll go over there and do the deed."
Ashton stood upright on dead man's legs.
"Don't worry John, you'll never get burned," said Harry, with disarming alacrity.
"Why, do you think I've got a career for life?"
"No one's fireproof, John."
Harry was good, Christ, you had to give him that. Ashton walked slowly towards the door handle. He'd played this scene before. Harry fumbled, grunted and held tight. Ashton heard the recoil and consequent hiss. Feeling like someone had brought a length of piping down hard between his shoulderblades, Ashton spat, "What the fu-"
Lying face downwards in the mottled, sickly lime green Axminster, he attempted to speak but merely succeeded in gargling the blood rising at the back of his throat. He worked his hand free from under his body and tried to lever himself upwards. The arm was sadly redundant. Heavy footsteps, muffled, profane whispers of exculpation. Blood. In his mouth. On his hands. Then, darkness.
It was cold and a fine mist of rain was gently beating on his face. Krakatoa headache. And the fire raging in his thoracic cavity, burning up his guts. Dry blood clogged his nostrils. Breath harsh and irregular, the aural landscape was marked by violent splutters as the raindrops coaxed the blood that had caked the inside of his mouth back down his throat. He had not yet conjured the will to spring his eyelids. The very thought of doing so engendered pain, a pain not physical in its manifestation, which rendered it all the more excruciating. Dying quietly here, wherever that was. Tortuous exhalation. Alone with. Monochrome image in his head, clearing away the fuzziness, thin guy carrying a bellyful of caps.
His head became fuzzy again. He liked it better clear. I walked. That is what he needed to say, I Walked. He rolled onto his stomach, innards lurching. Disgorged blood. Palms lain flat against the cold wet surface, he pushed upwards.
The fire in his chest shot along his arms. They wilted. White static.
"Mister, you alright?" A voice, belonging to a child, flat yet oddly imploring. He opened his eyelids. Christ, it hurt. When the yellow haze dissipated he was granted a panoramic view of grimy pavingstones. The mundanity was quite pleasing. Tiny hand shook his shoulder.
Ashton brought his knees up to his chest and the flames rose. Feeling like he'd slipped on napalm thermals he compelled himself into a semi-upright position. There was the kid, with its back to him, seeking assistance. He twisted his neck. Row of shops, collection of shabby forms, locust whispers. He croaked something to the kid. It turned.
Blonde, neatly parted hair, bright blue eyes imbued with expectancy, like any other kid really, apart from the bottom lip ripped clean from the jaw. The kid spoke and the bloody rag that hung flapped in a grotesque manner. He shrieked. The kid's bruised, lumpy features crumpled and he ran away.
"Ugly little shit." He recognised the voice. It was his own. Jesus, the kid was coming back, towing a policeman, all tit helmet and blue tunic. The policeman was tall and bulky and consoling the child. He didn't know why, but when he saw the policeman his hand shot into the inside pocket of his overcoat. The reassuring bulge was not there. An arm was proffered and he clung gratefully and tenaciously to it, as if ridding himself of a swamp's attention.
"Now sir, can I be of help?" Usual pig face, belligerence cloaked by transparent deference, one that would blur when set next to the other portraits in the porker gallery, the only less than effacing detail the black handlebar moustache which belonged to the past, that and an empty eye socket. Choking on a scream, he threw a weak punch. It landed feebly on the jaw. It was enough. The policeman's head fell from his shoulders and lay face upwards on the pavingstone, a flicker of a smile dancing on thin pink lips. It was all surprisingly bloodless. He needed to say, I Walked. However, he felt immutably tethered. He was on his feet, yeah, that was fine, but so was the headless body stood redoubtably upright before him. He lunged forward, bounced off it and landed on his backside. The kid was cradling the deposed crown, accusation rising to the surface of his limpid pools.
The fire had gone, his flesh felt clammy and his mind desperately sought something to cling to. His neck twisted. High buildings, low buildings, all low rent of course, then again he was a low rent kind of guy. The collection of forms, edging closer, those locust whispers, growing in density, white static. The kid was now wearing the police helmet and stroking the head's black matted hair lovingly. He covered his ears with his hands and shut his eyes tight. Now there was nothing. No insidious whispers, no freaky kid playing make up with a severed head, nothing.
Darkness, silence. It was like that a long time. Then, pain. It was not corporeal. It was unbearable. Locust whispers. Rain licking his face. He was burning again. Loosed bright, icy laughter. Eyes stark and staring. The collection of forms were quite perceptible. Surrounding him like carrion crows in grim attendance, he felt the oppression of their eyes. They were dissimilar, the sole factor that lent the illusion of unity to the configurations was the angularity of their posture, necks stooped and twisted, backs arched as if they were carrying coal sacks. Other than that, their visages smudged into a teratologic montage, distended bone structures and splashes of primary colours, the work of a piss poor Bosch. He screeched and his mouth filled with blood. Locust whispers died. He found himself seeking, amongst the battered, burned and ennui drenched faces, the blonde haired child, but he could not pick out his comforting repulsiveness. An elderly gentleman, looking dapper in a black suit of mourning cut, forced his way through the gaggle, holding a tatty brown bag. Knees audibly creaking, the gentleman of imperious element leant down and spoke to him. He saw the lipless mouth contort, heard nothing. The gentleman straightened beside him, lugubrious features betraying irritation, presumably at his reticence. Damn the tongue that wouldn't divulge, and those recalcitrant limbs strewn haphazardly round his trunk, a flesh swastika. Oh, he wanted to communicate, a volley of cathartic obscenities, and suddenly he was electrified, climbing to his feet under the gaze of cutprice Prometheus'.
"What do you want, hey. Freaks!" It was his voice, and the histrionic tone embarrassed him. Those locust whispers, fuzzing his head.
"What do you want!" He tore his tightly buttoned overcoat open. They seemed amused by his overtly dramatic gesture. Mocking, incessant laughter.
"Don't laugh you arseholes." Then he noticed the blood. It was everywhere. On his hands,
soaking his white shirt. He unbuttoned the shirt furtively. There was a gaping wound near
his heart, the edges of it crimson and ragged. He raised his palms to invoke divinity whilst
the flames consumed him.
A good cover story might carry you all the way. This is life? Another life? Another assholes shoes? No, just him as always. In a one horse town with a B-List cast. Sifting through the elliptical fragments of a posthumous existence.
Ashton sipped his vodka sourly. The drink tasted good but the scene was deadly. Dunlop, the town quack, was propped up in the snug, slurring and twitching. A girl was tinkling the ivories. Ashton pulled a stool up and sat next to her. When he had first seen her he had thought she was a child, such was the fragility of her frame. Her angular features and grey complexion, the agonised blue eyes and throaty voice belied this. Ashton was vaguely acquainted with the music she was playing and tried to stick a name to it. As he didn't particularly like it he ceased to bother.
"You play really well," said Ashton. She looked up wanly. Her fingers were long and tapering and glided over the keys inelegantly.
"You want a drink?" asked Ashton, taking the bottle off the tray resting on his knees. She handed him her glass.
"Thank you, ice please."
He poured her three fingers and dropped ice cubes in it.
"Hits a spot," she laughed after a belt which almost drained her glass.
"Want a cigarette?"
The girl was not a looker but after the charred old bastard in the bath at his lodgings she was an honey. She ran her fingers through dishevelled brown hair and Ashton noticed the scars criss crossing her wrists.
"Listen, I'm hungry. Do you want to go and get something to eat?"
"I don't eat much, if anything," said the girl.
"Not much of an appetite, eh?" said Ashton, disturbed by the crazed distant expression she had assumed.
"You see, Daddy's Little Girl becomes Daddy's Big Girl then Daddy doesn't want to play no more."
As she spoke these words vacantly Ashton felt his shoulders tighten.
"Daddy doesn't like bumps and bushes."
Ashton didn't feel much like asking what Daddy did like. They had a couple more drinks, which relaxed Ashton and silenced the girl. She smoked all her cigarettes and was unsteady on the stool, a little tipsy after the vodka. Ashton got to his feet to leave, slipping the half empty bottle into his inside coat pocket.
"Back to Daddy's teeth," said the girl wistfully. She began to play dissonantly. Ashton acknowledged her with a curt nod of the head and left.
The policeman shook Ashton awake. "Sir, I can't leave you here, might catch your death." Ashton was lying on cold pavingstones, his left side numb. The policeman grabbed his collar and dragged him to his feet. Ashton's guts went into free fall. He held onto the policeman's shoulders till he was sure he wasn't going to vomit.
"Where am I?"
"You overdid it last night sir and ended up paralytic, here, in the middle of the town square."
"So what now? A night in the cells," said Ashton, just wanting to sleep. The policeman nudged the empty vodka bottle with the toe of his size ten and laughed, "Of course not sir. How could I possibly censure someone in your position. It would be like armwrestling with a leper."
Hardly cheered, Ashton said, "Then what."
"Just merely to guide you back to your humble lodgings."
The voice was gently mocking, the face distinguished by an handlebar moustache and a black eye patch. Let sleeping pigs lie.
"Thanks," said Ashton. The policeman began to walk briskly with Ashton following a few steps behind. They made small talk. When they reached the front gate of the guest house Ashton slapped the policeman firmly on the back and said, "You're alright."
The policeman's head toppled forward and rested against his chest, hanging by a length of spinal column.
"Evening sir," spoke the policeman into his blue tunic. The words were muffled and Ashton didn't catch them. Arms splayed, the policeman tottered off into the darkness.
The landlady knocked on the door and told him she was dishing up his breakfast downstairs. She said she pitied him because he had neither belief in the good of god or inner conviction and that he was like a ship without moorings, and that it was because of great pain he did what he did, and that very pain would bear him salvation.
Ashton was slumped at the kitchen table, a plate of egg and bacon before him. The bacon was overdone and it reminded him of his friend down the hall. He drank a cup of sweet tea and prodded at the egg yolk with a piece of thickly buttered toast. He ate three slices, which settled his stomach, and thanked the landlady before he went sitting on the town square with the little boy. At first he had attempted to sneak to the bar and have a proper breakfast of scotch and soda but the little boy had flagged him down. Ashton felt obliged to humour the boy after his hostility, albeit born of disorientation, on their initial meeting, engendered distress in the latter. The little boy's face was fine, all peaches and cream, the contusions gone, but the lip still hung. They talked for a while. The little boy told him that if you made your way through all the streets and houses you came to a long stone road surrounded by green fields and hills.
And, if you were really lucky, a bus would pick you up and take you away. Ashton asked him how he knew this: the little boy said he'd met a man who'd caught it but came back cause he'd forgotten something and the man said it was the worst thing he'd ever done. Where was the man now, Ashton asked him, and the little boy said he'd only met him once and he was never seen in the town again. The little boy said he must be the luckiest man in the world and got on the bus twice. Ashton indulged this fancy and suggested they go for dinner together, he'd get him a pie from the chippy. The boy looked diffident and drifted away. Ashton was gasping for a drink. However, he didn't fancy chewing the cud with Daddy's Little Girl. She would be in there of course, making that infernal racket. He decided he could bear it. He awoke later in the town square adorned with vomit. The little boy was staring at him.
"You were in that pub a long time, mister."
Ashton's head was imploding and his mouth dry.
"You was screaming and shouting something rotten mister."
"Was I?" Ashton was devoid of the haziest recollection.
"Yes. Daddy's little girl, that's all I made out. Daddy's little girl."
"Christ." Ashton climbed to his feet gingerly and made his way back to the guest house. The kid was speaking to him as he walked away but Ashton was not listening.
Ashton was dozing in his armchair when the moans crept down the hallway. He covered his ears with his hands and surveyed the wreckage of his room. He no longer had a light, the fixture having been unsuccessfully utilised as a makeshift gallows. The doors of the wardrobe dangled off their hinges. Carpet full of rubble, overcoat full of puke. He saw the noose. His laughter was bright and icy.
Buy the big one.
Dead time, dumb thoughts, blank chops.
They walked to the outskirts of town. It had been raining the night before and light drizzle still fell. Everything was shrouded in a fine mist. The little boy was anxious and he kept pinning the lip that hung to his chin so he could bite it gently. The bus did not come. They began to walk down the highway. Though he rapidly tired the little boy chatted excitedly, about how he was looking forward to seeing his father again and that he would tell him not to keep upsetting himself and that it was not his fault he never came when called, it was the teenage boys who wanted to play on the train tracks. They walked for a very long time. It became dark, and, exhausted and hungry, they slept by the roadside. Morning arrived, bright and fresh. They were both lying in the town square. The little boy said it was still early enough to catch the bus, if it came that is. The little boy told John about a big red open top bus with a gold dragon on its side. He had gone for a ride on it with his grandma and he remembered what an hot day it had been and the ice lolly he had. It was the first ice lolly he'd had and it was the nicest thing he'd ever tasted, but he admitted being so young that wasn't saying much. He begged for another lolly, and another, and the heat and the over indulgence and the bus bobbing on the cobblestones made him sick. He said that was why he wouldn't let John buy him an ice cream before they left town again. John asked him did he think he would be sick, and if he did, he was being silly. It wasn't that, said the little boy, I just don't like being reminded of grandma. Silence fell between them and they both realised for the second time they were well down the highway. The boy strained his ears, hoping for the monotonous rumble of an engine to reach them. I like the sun, said the boy. That night on the train track was the darkest I've ever known. Those lads were so naughty, they made me bleed and laughed. The boy pouted, seemingly aggrieved. It soon passed. They waited a very long time, the boy saying his legs would take him no further and John saying the road had no end anyway, least to the naked eye, an expression which puzzled the child. The sun began to recede slowly behind the clouds and the sky took on a darker hue. There might be a bus no one knows about, said the little boy, face suppliant. No, I don't think so, said John. He tried to smile reassuringly but he felt hollow inside and his effort was discomforting. The boy assented with an equally conceited skewed grimace.
You ever had Uncle Joe's mintballs, John asked the little boy.
No, me mam never let me have boiled sweets, said they'd stick in me throat.
Well, you're big enough now, not as nice as an ice lolly, but when you pop one in your mouth you'll think of me, and, well kid, looks like we're not going to get very far.
I've noticed, said the boy, choking on a sob, that since I've come here, I've lost my shadow. John thought of the empty noose in moonlight and fought the urge to scream. Slightly bewildered, the boy was rubbing his eyes with his sleeve, not wanting John to see the tears which were flowing now.
Christ, I need a drink, said John.
That golden liquid you had in the pub, asked the little boy, eyes watery.
Yeah, replied John.
My dad used to drink the golden liquid and he was ever so happy. Do you reckon he still drinks it?
I'm sure of it, said John.
Me mam one Christmas was drinking this stuff that looked like water but tasted like fire I know 'cause when she went to the fridge to get ice I sipped it and was sick everywhere.
Are there any of your relatives you've not vomited on, asked John and the boy giggled.
Do you think me mam and dad drink the fiery water and golden liquid and that they still remember me. I still remember them, I just wish I had a picture of them, I'm always frightened I'll forget what they look like and I'll meet them and never know it. John brushed a lock of golden hair off the boy's forehead and tilted his face upwards and was struck by the peculiar horror of an eternity of innocence.
He thought of himself: corrupted by sentiment.
Don't worry kid, they won't forget you.
Do you think so?
I know so. The boy smiled. C'mon kid, said John, holding the little boy's hand. They both looked down the seemingly endless highway that stretched before them, longing in their guts, then walked back towards town, their forms obscure in the resolute dusk.