Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jack the Cutter - It Must Have Been Toddington

Jack The Cutter

As Therm thumbed his way towards the meanderable lanes of deepest Surrey, he maintained a picture in his mind's iritic eye of his old stamping-ground: the lamentable one-way gutters and blind alleys around St. Paul's Cathedral. He knew a dosser had to do what a dosser had to do - and that was probably die as soon as possible, both to rid himself of the world and vice versa. But death was never the easiest way out.

Of course, he could've used the services of another dosser called Jack who wielded knives in the dark like shooting stars just for the hell of it - but Therm decided he could think of better deaths than at the business end of one of those. Furthermore, he rather resented popping his cork beside some damnable City Bank. He wanted to taste sweet countryside, not only upon the pan-handle of his tongue but also with the very ends of his teeth. Only the twittering birds would suffice, he deemed, to attend his swansong, those in the beck-dripping woods further south. Not that he thought with such poetical turns of phrase and there was some doubt whether his mind generated such ill-cut gems of English prose, in any event, since he felt a larger than life force acting upon his mind - one that not only controlled his destiny like a Christian god so out of control it had forgotten about the free will of its flock, but one that also loved and hated him, in equal measures, more than any god of any religion ever could.

The lorry driver chuckled. She glanced at the hitch-hiker who was a mass of melted mutter in the passenger seat. She had never given lifts to thumbers like Therm before, so she couldn't comprehend why this old toothy toper of a tramp had managed to halt a reluctant juggernaut on the hard shoulder and wheedle his way into the cab for a lift to Ruffet Wood (where its route didn't lie, anyway). So, all she could do was chuckle: humour being the only cure for life's absurdity that humankind could ever find. The tall lights gradually faded from the sides of the road, whilst she steered between them, Therm thought, as if she were on a fairground ride. Gradually, humps of indistinct trees blackened the night around - leaving only hazy fleets of stars in the narrow inky channel above.

"Where do you want putting off, exactly?"

Therm thought her voice to be saying something quite different, since he replied: "Yes, I love you, too". And the lorry plummetted headlong into a massive tree which seemed to be planted smack in the middle of the carriageway, causing the trailer to jack-knife violently - rattling the bodies inside the cab, floppy dice in the game of Fate - and then tinning them like pig spam within a blood sump. Evidently, the Christian god hated one of them more than he loved the other. And there was very little poetry in that, other than the fact that the two iron-clad corpses of Therm and the lorry driver were discovered hand in hand by the cutting crew.

In a fleeting after-life, Therm was a woman, one without his teeth. The end of the world came suddenly, as the sun fell from the sky (faster than gravity could dictate) becoming smaller all the time, crunching towns in the near distance as it finally came to rest.

Once an undead always an undead - and Therm quickly regained his body's pigsweat. The most disturbing part was an after-life where he was female. The teeth didn't matter so much. He clutched at himself below the bedcovers in a sudden irrational fear which the resumption of reality had brought with it. Somewhat relieved, but further disturbed by the fact that he had actually seemed to need such relief, he turned over on his side to find his wife staring at him, with Jack the Cutter's luminous eyes. Her two hands each had a knife that looked like an elephant tusk.

Then he glimpsed a real after-life one which would eventually become his wife's. A Christian heaven was meant to be a home from home, wasn't it? How many times did they want telling? Her son had spilled all the cornflakes over the formica table. *And* her husband had done his favourite trick of making only one cup of tea - for himself.

"I didn't think you were getting up yet," he claimed.

"You could've brought one up, then," Therm replied in the shrill voice of his wife.

"Good job I didn't, as you're already up."

There was no winning of arguments with a pig, especially a man's man such as Therm's husband who had become a fire-officer by means of countless acts of bravery. Therm shrugged and turned her attention back to her son the piglet whose rummaging in his satchel finally gave birth to yesterday's sandwiches which he said he couldn't eat because they had too much blood inside. She was halfway through spreading a thin plasma extract on a new set, as if she were priming the surface for another generous smoothed-out dollop of fresh blood, in turn reminding her of the skidmarks on the underpants with which she was presented every other day by husband and son alike. She could not help thinking she was mad - because a mind in after-life automatically imported its own disbelief.

The house was dead quiet. Therm's husband and son had both gone. There was staccato twiddling with the wireless. Housewives' Choice was announced this week by one of her particular favourite disc-jockeys. What was his name? She couldn't get the station. The dial she twirled fine-tuned nothing but high-pitched whistles or a voice that called itself Jack. She wound herself up into a frenzy. Tying a scarf around her head in that pixied way most women did in the fifties and sixties, Therm released the heavy overcoat from the broom cupboard and bustled with it into the street. The sky was pink like the underbelly of a pig, with an aureole of teats around a faint white splodge where the moon had once been.

Organic spaceships. Unidentified Fixed Objects in the sky, sprinkler systems for a world about to catch fire. The words buzzed in Therm's head as if her bee brain had broken loose. She was Queen for a day. Nobody else about. She wandered the empty streets, weaving between the ill-parked cars, feeling herself undeserving of the senile dementia to which she had been abandoned by the head-lease dreamer. She was the tenant in a fleshy bivouac which could be sub-let no further down the scale of reality. She almost wished her two menfolk could return. At least, they presented some form of sanity, even if in the shape of teeth-tusks. The pink in the sky turned slowly black...

Therm woke from every conceivable after-life, including the one where he actually had a wife with his own name. Dressed in a cardboard suit, he levered himself over beneath the cold dark dripping arches. In the near distance sat the hunched silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral. He was alone in the whole world, neither demented nor sane. That was the worst thing of all. He tried to get back to sleep and retrieve some of the feminine wherewithal that he seemed to have in the after-life. There had been a Charles Lamb story about how civilisation invented roast pork. Such stories were almost sufficient to warm the cockles of his heart, like memories of his sandwich-making mother. He once loved the cold waking he had of it. The songs on the wireless still buzzing in his head. Would sleep never return? Could flesh be made palatable by freezing? Existence was like being encased in sheet iron which moved with the body, unfelt for most of the time. He poisefd his two protruding teeth upon the engorged arteries in his wrist. The yellow street-light flickered out, making it easier to sleep - and to welcome the cutting crew that rescued the undead from life itself.

Blacked up ready for the night, the Devil sat in his dressing-room, staring mindlessly into the mirror. His pointed face was ringed with flickering coloured light bulbs, so he could not fail to fathom his own eyes. They were staring so hard it seemed as if he were playing a make-or-break game with himself: the last to blink would explode.

Then, he plumbed such a long way, he saw a thought, an idea, a concept, a caprice, one which he did *not* want to see. Deep deep down in the dungeons of his soul where the funnel of his sight ended - deeper indeed than Hell itself - was a doubt. And never had the Devil doubted before. This doubt gnawed at his vitals and tempted him to believe that he was not the Devil at all, but a dosser called Therm: nothing but a wine-bibbing tosspot who spoke to himself in nonsensical rhyming couplets, to blot out the nagging loneliness in his heart....

There came a sharp rapping at the door: "Five minutes!" The voice was deep but heavenly sweet.

The Devil fled back up towards his sight, tussling through the blubbery membranes and red threadworms which surrounded the eyeballs. He would soon be on - if "on" is a word sufficiently weighty to convey the performance he was about to undergo, with no rehearsal, no other actors, no props, no stage to speak of, no audience....

Therm woke briefly from an undead's unnatural sleep. He sat up straight in the darkness, startling the other cardboard-suited dossers who had been lightly dozing nearby under the midnight moon. But now the moon was nothing more than an artist's careless smudge. This was because, upon the blackdrop of the sky, a circle of flashing fairy lights slowly revolved as they grew bigger or came closer.

"Blimey, they're piggin' spaceships!" muttered Therm who proceeded to squeeze his eyes shut tight like a child making pretend he was sleeping. Perhaps dreaming of tin-openers again. Or an after-life in Hell.

There was a raucous orchestra tuning up in the pit. Tap-dancing with cloven hooves was a deafening act to under-perform. So, he tip-clodded in, flowing mane coiffured by Hell's finest stylists, skewed antler-horn painted out against the scenery, forked tongue being tasted by its own guardian teeth. His mascara eyes were blinded by the searing twirling spotlights from above the seats in the gods. His innards felt like lolloping eels still alive, but he jabbed away desultorily with his furry hind-limbs. As the spots faded, he spied a spare pair of sparkles in the audience - like eyes on spikes. And Therm the vampire, thankfully, was consumed by a sleep like delicious death - too numb even to feel Jack the Cutter's preparing hands ... except from inside such hands like fingers in gloves.

Published 'Stygian Articles' 1996


It Must Have Been Toddington

The sky hung in warm wet blankets. Tim Overdale wiped threads at sweat from his hair-line, as he turned off the car's engine. He had gratuitously steered into a lay-by off the A426, not to get his bearings so much but to assure himself that the air pressure had not dropped - he had an obsession with the tyres: a deep dread of blow-out or unexpected seepage of their firmness.

Tim turned over the cassette and pushed it back into the slot on the dashboard. He began to listen as the static hiss became music, a Stabat Mater by a composer he had forgotten. Fumbling for the case, he forced himself to read his own untidy handwriting., finding that it was by Dvorak.

"Four-Jack," he whispered to himself.

Time enough to test the wheels later; he was early for his appointment anyway.

He grabbed hold of the Guardian purchased earlier in a motorway service station. Watford Gap, he seemed to remember: or had it been Toddington? Probably neither.

There was some news in the paper that the American president made all his decisions in the light (or rather, thought Tim, the dark) of Astrology. Something. to do with the alignment of planets determining whether he should venture out of the White House or not. Wonder what the man on the other side of the world thought of that, having summit meetings dependent on the cusp of Uranus!

Bored, Tim let his eyes wander: he looked out of the car window at a blurred factory chimney reaching. up into the sticky grey of the sky. Smoke started to belch from it, as if it knew it was being watched...

A sharp tap on the rear window made Tim jump - he swivelled around in his seat to see a woman staring in at him. She was smiling at him, but there was more than a hint of sadness in her eyes. He got out.

"Yes? Can I help you?"

She was in her mid to late twenties, dressed in a uniform of white blouse and navy-blue pleated shirt that came to just below the knees. Her hair was windswept, or perhaps just untidy, in view of the lack of' wind, thought Tim.

A flicker of recognition lit a dim memory in his mind - only to be snuffed out as she replied.

"I wanted to tell you that one of' your tyres is flat." Her voice was husky, as if she was suffering from a sore throat, or perhaps from trying to reach him over the loud music. She pointed to the rear nearside wheel.

Tim cursed. His immediate thought was to the spare in the boot, would that be flat too? He had not checked it for at least two days. "Thank you..."

He did not question the arrival of the woman, next to the middle of nowhere as they were. The only sign of life nearby was the factory beyond the roadside field that was speckled unnaturally bright. yellow in the gloom.

"You have a spare, don't you?"

"Yes, I think so... Don't let me keep you, I can manage. Thanks again, I might have done some damage If I'd driven off with that thing...." He pointed to the ugly rupture, the flesh of the tread splayed out on each side of the hub. Cringing, he knelt to examine the damage, inserting his finger into the various holes. This was no ordinary puncture - the whole thing had been flayed.

"Nasty business." The voice was above him.

Tim looked up. She was a peculiarly attractive woman; the outline of her bra showed vaguely through the sheeny blouse in the steel light. Her face was round, a bit puddingy perhaps, but the well-defined curves of' the lips and the spearmint eyes...

Tim wondered why he was studying her to such a degree. He had more than enough trouble on his hands now to be spending time sizing up a potential pick-up. Years ago, he was always on the look-out for female hitch-hikers. But now, what with aids... He was older too, more mature, less over-sexed, less eager. Still, his hands flexed involuntarily.

"You sure I can't help?" The words seemed to breathe into his ear.

"No - no, thanks all the same. It's a simple matter these days. Jacks are much easier to handle..."

Hearing the faint strains of music still coming from inside the car, he stood up to go and switch it off.

"I'll do it." As if reading his mind, she opened the driver's door and disengaged the cassette.

It was strange how quiet it was out here. The sky had even started to brighten up, the drizzle relenting just before he had climbed out of the car. The heat was still oppressive, damping down any sound, including the footsteps as they negotiated around each other. She was, he thought, trying to get in the way.

"You know we were meant to meet here today."

Squatting by the blow-out, Tim stared up at her, at a loss for words. What could you say to a statement like that. So he ignored it.

He went to find the jack in the boot.

The afternoon was far brighter, for the sun had burnt off the morning mists. Tim's white car was still in the lay-by. The yellow field, despite the sunshine, was no brighter, it seemed, than it had been in the morning. The colour was true. You no longer needed to study the sky to see the factory chimney - it was just plain there and not worth the notice. The odd cars that pounded along the road were merely reminders of other human beings.

Tim had the driver's seat leaning right back. A gluey heat seeped down his face, so that he could hardly see through the sticky eyelids or breathe out of the bubbling nostrils. A twitching lizard's tail peeped from between his lips.

Music played. He had not put it on, he was sure, for he did not like jazz: a husky, bluesy voice, a mix of Elkie Brooks, Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin. He could not easily decipher the words, for his ears were fast waxing up with yellowing brain...

His lower parts stank: he could not smell them, of course.

Tim suddenly realised something he had known all along - he had seen that woman before today: she had once been a hitch-hiker, unlucky enough to get the younger Tim Overdale as a lift.

The car slowly sank to its chassis.

Yes, it must have been Toddington...

Published 'Flickers 'n Frames' 1990

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