Saturday, March 31, 2007

Soft Luggage

Temperance Street was deathly quiet on the Saturday afternoon of which I speak, but especially the house where the two men lived. They were known as Biddo and Brewtocks, but I hadn’t given it further thought.

When I knocked on the door within the outlandishly prominent storm-porch, all I had in mind was to sell them a brush or two (of varying torques), or maybe a couple of pairs of asbestos oven-gloves.

Biddo answered in his Sunday best, spoilt by tattered slippers, body slightly stooped and dome-headed. He did not look me in the eyes but merely gazed at the threadbare doormat on which I rubbed my boots.

I indicated the suitcase beside me in the porch: “Can I interest you, Mr Biddo in my compendium of housewares…”

He attempted to shut the door on me but, with my heavy-duty foot wedged inside, it remained stubbornly open, not that I’m really that type of pressure salesman, but we’ve all got to earn a living, haven’t we?

By this time Brewtocks loomed from the dark hallway and, taller than Biddo, made a double face-off with his cohabitant.

I continued: “I’ve got polish so strong it’ll make your face beam. I’ve got dusters that’ll fight amongst themselves for the pleasure of getting down to the night soil in the more inaccessible corners of your bedroom. I’ve got shammy leathers as ripe and healthy as the day they were shorn. I’ve got things for your disposal system that’ll make your hairs stand on end…”

Brewtocks motioned silence and, with a mere flick of his leathery hand, invited me in. Evidently, they wanted to place a big order.

In the dark parlour, I could only discern their faces bobbing about but, as my eyes adjusted, I shuddered with distaste, for everything was steeped in a yester-year of which I’d only heard rumours and hints. The chokings of lace curtain, brown-seamed and loose-hemmed, some merely tacked decades before, seemed to twitch vigorously despite the stillness of the gloom. The skirting boards were heavily scuffed, indicating the house had once been full of irritating beady-eyed toddlers (or worse). The flock wall-paper was peeling away from the wall, even as I watched it. The light-shade was smudged with dark grease. Worst of all, the ceiling sagged in places with central nipples like ripening boils.

Biddo pointed to some soft luggage in the corner and muttered: “We used those cases when we went hop-picking in Kent before the war.”

They told me of their lives together (and separately). The war in the East End had indeed been over-romanticised, the memories of bon-homie in the air raid shelters being just figments of later dreams. Biddo imagined himself to be some kind of fateful force that moved the planets around like poker chips. He had spent the war willing a bomb to drop on him and prove him right. Brewtocks was livelier, more outgoing than Biddo. He was the one who left the house, if only rarely, to fetch the provisions that supplemented their self-made food. When he stood up, his head touched the under-hang of the ceiling, and he told me of all manner of inventions on which he was currently working. He had spent the war on jaunts to all corners of the house, neutralising all the unexploded bombs that had lodged themselves there.

And they told me stories fit to make my short and curlies straighten out…

For some years now they had only used this parlour, not venturing elsewhere in the house, since indeed the war had now long been over. I offered to make a tour of the other rooms and recommend which items of my housewares would be best suited to clear the way for habitation again.

They stared glassily at me as I left them to their own devices. I started to climb the narrow steep stairs, where each tread was half a leg higher than the previous one. The carpet, I felt, had long since retreated into the grain of the wood, leaving only textured mould cushioning my boot-studs. I ripped aside several tangles of tangible air with my suitcase, before I reached the even darker landing. Here, stench had given birth to stench for curdling generations.

I had no torch in my case but I felt for a particular device that would serve instead. It was one of those wick air-fresheners. I pulled the tab like a grenade, to release the wild glowing fragrance of summery twilit meadows. I imagined the lime-green ichor seeping up the webbed stem of the wick to spring its essence of stunning odours … but it shrivelled back into the jar like a used condom creature.

It was then I heard the soft shambling … from the distant master bedroom, where stinks and fetors had flocked and found comfort from cuddling each other. The waddling knot of what had once been smells feeding off other lesser smells in self-perpetuation came into view from out of the utter darkness. Its mouth was as strange as it being a mouth at all. It was rubbery and flexed itself like the brain in my head, opened its chapped lips around the grisly air and revelled in the worms it used as teeth. And from it there guttered a blotched gravy as thick as movement would allow. If it were mouth at all, then the face to which it must have belonged was wholly stench made flesh. And the nose where nose should be, was beyond belief on such a thing...

I fled, abandoning my suitcase to teeter on the edge of its puckering maw.

Biddo and Brewtocks did not attempt to prevent me leaving their condemned house. And I have to believe their polite welcome inside had been merely a device to put paid to my hard-sell; just a polite way of saying ‘no thank you’.

(published 'Hobgoblin' 1991)


No comments: