THE BLACK CHORD
Anton drummed his fingers on the beer-sticky table as Tobey walked out the door; a coded plea to the outer dark for one more pint of god-awful chemical backwash. He watched the skeletal men that propped up the bar, indigenous to its musty timber. They understood the decorum. Never said a goddamn word to anyone. New relationships gave people all sorts of stupid permissions. God, he needed a drink. Tobey Connery in love was like that big dopey dog from Sesame Street; all aw-shucks-lets-just-have-fun coyness. Fine if you’re an eight year old boy, not if you’re a goddamn punk.
He hunted for change in his pockets, muttering about rip-off bullshit. Forever, they’d said. Tapped it out in greasy metronome. Together, they’d sifted the waste, polished up the viscera, and come back with nuggets of shrieking cool.
And now it was over? No. No way. He was just getting started.
Loops of black cable mapped the tracts of solitary amplifiers, their plywood frames precisely placed, like venerated menhirs. A hum thickened the air, filling the garage with grim, industrial portent. Anton was on his knees, persuading his Telecaster into loosing the right kind of fuzz.
He tried to feel out a tricky chord and winced in sudden pain. It annoyed him to have to work so hard while others proved naturally proficient. Mike had picked up the drums with such minimal grind that it was almost comical. Painfully, teeth-grindingly comical.
He pressed his hand around the neck and began to mould his fingers, the acid dregs of rejection coming on like new dark heat. The chord made his hand look gnarled and otherworldly, the petrified grip of a man long dead. His tendons ached for release. He fought to keep the shape, and slammed down his hand.
It was an ugly noise, one that suited the contours of the chord. It seemed to scrape and churn forever, like the death-cry of some heartsick machine. Anton lost his grip before he could hit it again, feeling strangely grateful for his flaw. Jesus, he thought, that is foul.
Dig put his head round the door as the sound dissolved and barked an order to keep it down. Anton gave him the finger and collapsed into the sofa. It squeaked beneath his weight, the ancient vinyl latticing into a network of spidery cracks.
Now that he could face it, he saw that Tobey had changed. Between Rich-tard’s ambition and his brother’s hip O.D. (he lived, of course), the dry tick of mortality had filled his head with tedious questions of purpose. Rock stars were no longer the bloated dinosaurs of yesteryear, but something to be treasured, a great American highway waiting for the band to hitch a ride. He wanted to be something, and Anton could think of nothing worse.
He pressed his head into the armrest and cursed the shrunken world.
He woke up feeling oddly sated, if bruised and blank. It was still dark outside. He briefly considered a journey to the kitchen and saw himself loosing frothy vomit on the grim linoleum floor. There was a familiar smell in the air; turf and old oil. The amp was still buzzing in the corner.
It took him a moment to realise he was in the garage. Tiny bumps of gooseflesh shivered on his skin as he reached towards the amp, ears throbbing with
the song of a thousand wasps.
“I was listening to that,” said the thing in the corner. Its preposterous bulk rattled as it settled into an impossibly painful crescent.
Anton tittered quietly and fell to the floor. Theological vertigo. Symptoms may include a strong sense of insignificance.
“Wicked things set wicked trails,” said the devil. “My clever little flower.”
The devil, as it turned out, was named Goatmoth, and had no familiarity whatsoever with his various sobriquets. He knew nothing of any gardens – save for the lavender he had just trampled – spoke no useful Hebrew, and could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any God. He proclaimed the soul to be a) a very clever idea, and b) inherently ridiculous, and relished the bleak duality.
There was not a scrap of flesh on his – it’s? – body, although the bones moved with fluid grace. Much was hidden by a flowing robe embroidered with golden hieroglyphs that looked like complicated insects.
The sheep skull head lowered to graze the amplifier, which loosed a keening whine and collapsed into static. “Ah,” said the-thing-that-was-not-Old-Nick, “a little bit of shiver.”
The jaws of the skull did not work with the words, and they fell into the air as though plucked from the ether (Oxbridge-on-Styx probably, judging by their plummy, aristocratic air). Anton swallowed (it was more a muumuu than a robe really, which took some of the sting out of the Rethink-Your-Entire-Worldview bullshit. This is your own bullshit talking by the way, said the reptile brain, and if you don’t keep it up, I’m going to pump you with enough atavistic adrenaline to kickstart a hundred hair metal douchebags).
“What do you want?” said Anton.
The great head rose until it scraped the ceiling. “We might well ask the same,” said Goatmoth, “but you would despise your predictability.”
Anton didn’t budge. A mass of beetle-things scuttled beneath the robe, like a wave upon a miniature ocean. He took it to be a sign of exasperation.
“We must be honest with ourselves, my night flier,” said the floating voice. “Honesty is all we have. Nobody really wants to know the why of anything; they only need know what now. And I will tell you, because you are young, and neither of us is kind, that the only useful answer is more.”
Anton understood. He’d experimented with various narcotics throughout his life, none of them providing the unmatched experience he’d anticipated. Life was like that sometimes. When the wrapping came off, the shit was just weak. “Ain’t got all night, mate,” he said.
Goatmoth nodded. “You have achieved something quite remarkable. The black chord. It is a singular sound.”
“What, that mess? Hardly fucking Mozart is it?”
“Mozart!” The bone hands clapped together. “Oh, he was a presence in the mind of the young Ludwig. Yes, I know a talent when it is upon me. You have summoned and I have come, and now we must progress to the matter at hand.”
Anton snorted. “What, you’re here to offer us a deal? That’s the other bloke isn’t it?”
Goatmoth stiffened. For a moment, the reality of him came crashing through, and Anton felt the reverent dread that made pyres hot with witch-fat and led martyrs to the sword. “Petal,” he hissed, “precious petal. I did not traverse the veil to be thwarted by your worthy tribulations.”
Anton shut his mouth.
“We require a song. One worthy of the honourable King-In-Mist. An old man now, with many burdens. His days are bright as lead, dry as dust. There is to be a celebration of his reign, and so there must be a song. A righteous song. A scarlet song.”
Anton scoffed. “Bit of a racket for a king.”
“Oh no,” chuckled Goatmoth, “He loves your little conniptions. Like ships in a storm…” He grunted in contemplation. “Picasso spoke of a picture as the sum of its destructions,” he said. “And we are in the business of destructions.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Go to the glass.”
The lavender was dead. The grass, brown and rotten. A shape that Anton took to be a dead cat lay suspended in agony beside the birdbath. The good dark – the nameless dark – had unbuckled from its buttress.
“What is it?” he said.
“A small hell.”
“But you said you weren’t – ”
“Hell is all over, my darling dove.”
“I did this.”
He thought about Tobey and the band.
“Show me,” he said.
Anton spent the following Monday inducting his fingers into pain. He was thrilled to learn there was a bronze chord after the black, a carnelian chord; a whole splendid sequence. Each new formation was like Promethean fire.
Weird shit began to happen. The gargoyle on the patio wept cold, vermilion oil. The dog next door whirled in circles and left obliterated sparrows in its wake. It was hard work. Agonising work.
He wanted to call the others, tell them about the fat riffs, the sensational shifts; shit that would drive them wild. He’d rock the mysterious bit just a little… Prince of
darkness, brother to the night… just enough to make them wonder how he spun so much gold alone.
The more he played, the more he felt the old hate. Hate for all the break-ups, for the lies and little carnivals. For all the times they’d sworn blood on blood and it came to shit in the end. When Michael called, he could take no more than ten seconds of talk before the phone hit the wall like a bullet.
He thought about the power in his hands, the shows that would someday come. He saw fire along the promenade, coming on in waves like a bright second sea. He watched the Grand Hotel blacken and die, folding inwards in sombre instalments.
People were screaming, really screaming, for life and for God and to be a part of something new.
The blood was rich and sweet as he bit down on his lip.
His mum returned at six, with Dig and the shopping in tow. They spent the evening embroiled in the fable of the ruined lawn, certain that the neighbours had been making sport of their perfect space. His mum was almost in tears. Her face was drawn and pale as she poured a glass of wine. “I’m alright love,” she said, when Anton didn’t ask. “Just breathed in too many bogeys today.”
Dig was still staring through the window. “They’ve had the birdbath as well,” he said. Anton left the room before the questions began to mount.
The nightmare fossil invaded his dreams. He’d known many mixed-up boys who’d strived for the cool, unknowable purity he saw in the pits of Goatmoth’s eyes. One of them, a lad named Fletcher, spoke to the great white shark he wore on his monumental bicep as though it were a brother-in-arms.
He woke with the roar of an unknown engine echoing in his ears.
His mother came down with a bug and took a few days off work. Dig mentioned it only casually, but Anton knew he was shocked. Neglecting her duties at the school went against her deepest convictions. More than once Anton caught her secreting mock exam papers into the toilet where she spent the bulk of her day. “Don’t tell your dad,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
“How’s the music going?”
Mental. Obscene. “It’s going.”
She smiled. “Bit weird isn’t it?”
Anton shrugged and supposed it was.
The world outside the garage became thin and tenuous. He was a ghost in the house, a taciturn spirit that materialised for dinner and mumbled half-truths about his song. Dig wasn’t having any of it. His head became a fixture at the door, grunting about the racket as soon as Anton plucked a string. Stilted discussions became blazing rows amid the din and clamour. The earth moved around the sun. Same old, same old.
One night, while his mother turned in bed, Anton found himself recalling the creaky riff from Tobey’s notebook that signalled Sleepless, Soulless. He’d chanced his arm at a love song, having fancied Kevin O’Connor for about two years and gone completely
off his rocker about that stuff.
First Kevin, now Richard; Anton had wanted nothing to do with it. It owed too much to Tobey’s insistence upon texture and duality (and that Spanish word saudade), and he constantly wanted to scuzz it up. In the end they buried it, figuring there was more fun to be had in noisier pastures.
They were right.
It had been the only thing they had ever concocted that his mum had truly enjoyed. She said it was pretty and sad and couldn’t understand his aversion. Told him he was as deep as the bloody ocean.
“The weak can lead many astray,” said Goatmoth, squatting beside him. Beetles looped his lustrous skull like boys in blackened armour. “Weakness is more infectious than strength. Remember that, my bittersweet pip.”
It was early in the morning, almost ten. Anton lay on the bed and waited for the squeal of feedback. He’d dug around in the bowels of his laptop for the darkest tunes on offer; the harshest, ugliest angels to hold him aloft on his quest. A song like this wouldn’t materialise overnight. You had to load up the trough with petrol and pills and hold the animal down until it swallowed.
Dig wasn’t a fan of punk. He’d missed the first wave after a stint in the army, and could do nothing to regain the ground. Anton told him he’d discovered the real thing; that the rotten old toss he threw around was for the birds. There was no desperation in Bat Out of Hell.
Dig was looking a little wheezier these days. Slumped in his favourite armchair in the weak light after work, he looked proper rough. Anton didn’t think much about it. If his mum could take it, Dig could too. Throw Tobey on the list as well. Cruelty was only really cruelty when it was petty. Elevated by hard graft, it became something else altogether. Not art – that sort of guff was the purview of cheesy movie maniacs – but maybe a lower cousin. A greasy, rotten riff could be melded to a bunch of dumb lyrics and say more about the world than any book. Anton didn’t have any great insight on society or what made people tick. He could barely understand the coffee they were drinking. So goddamn angry all of the time, and what can you do about it –
Fuck that noise. Nothing you could do? You could call your stepdad a twat and wave your groin at the elderly.
At four, he put the beast to rest and hit the mottled tarmac of Baldwin Street. By quarter past, he was wedged between two pushchairs in the Jobcentre rehearsing a line about a heartless interview board. The buzzing and wheezing of human detritus turned the air into stew and made him long for the ecstasy of noise.
Half past, and he was sat across from a grinning man in a midnight suit who seemed to have little interest in Anton’s careful deceptions, and even less in finding out if he was bothering to look for work.
“That’s sounds great,” he said, after five minutes of blather, “let’s just sign the line and get down to brass tacks.”
Anton stared in surprise. “The money’s alright then?”
“What’s – sorry mate, what do you mean tacks?” He knew the answer, even before the man’s eye twinkled in conspiracy.
The man leaned in, close enough that Anton could see the lascivious mouth that opened in the chalk white skin beneath his collar, its teeth like pressed and hardened gumflesh, the tongue pulsating in heat. “We’re all very excited about the show,” said the man, as the second mouth squealed like some feeble-minded infant. “It’s been a while since anyone lived up to your master’s requirements.”
Anton felt his mouth open and close, the nausea swirling in his belly only abated by his inner punk shithead screaming master?
“Thanks,” he stammered. “I’m really – really trying hard.”
“I’m sure you are. Last guy who didn’t give it his all – well. He’s off the books now.”
Anton blinked. He remembered, with sudden clarity, that he had to pick some medicine on the way home.
“I’m sorry,” said the man, “I don’t mean to worry you. You’ll be great, I’m sure. Let’s talk about something else.”
He prodded at the miniature steam engine that nested beside his monitor. “Do you like trains? I saw this fantastic documentary – ”
Anton stood up. “I have to go,” he said, swallowing the peculiar taste that bubbled on his tongue. “Practise.”
“Of course. It’s really very admirable.”
There was another man waiting as he walked towards the door. He was wearing dark, disproportionate spectacles. Anton looked him over for visible monstrosity and motioned to walk on by. The man smiled. “Lovely stuff,” he said.
Michael was there as he left the building, scanning the job board for unfulfilling opportunities. He told Anton that Richard had infected everything and the whole band was moving on. He asked Anton to call Tobey, said they could maybe sort things out. Anton shut him down with a shake of his head and stepped out into the chill of the street. By the time he arrived at the Eagle, his hands were shaking so much he could barely hold his pint.
His mother blew up when he shuffled through the door, demanding to know why she was no longer worthy of a simple text. She looked terrible. Anton pointed out – again – that as a young man of legal drinking age he was permitted, indeed obliged, to get absolutely shitfaced at the drop of a hat. His instinct for defiance deserted him midway through the speech and he found himself apologising instead. She stepped back in surprise when he motioned to kiss her cheek. The skin there was grey and baggy and eternally dignified.
Dig went upstairs to put her to bed while Anton retired to his room, waiting for the secondary reaming that would inevitably come.
He woke with waves of pain crashing on his skull, smothering his thoughts and flattening him out. Bits of half-remembered melodies (maladies? Oh ho ho) disintegrated on his tongue, burning further in the shadows of waking until he wondered if his talent had been the dream all along.
There was an ambulance outside in the street. He pulled the curtains aside to see Dig conversing with a tired looking man in a green jumpsuit. The tree beside them was stooped with rot. Anton caught his breath and ran toward the stairs.
They spent the night passing on jargon that they barely understood. His aunt wept so freely that conversation became a sort of cryptographic game, interspersed by updates from her bovine sister – the legendary Janet –about Cousin Tim’s progress in Japan. By the time they got Uncle Jeff on the line, he was deep into a bottle of sherry, whispering tips and quick escapes like a sinister telemarketer. Dig hung up the phone
and rubbed his face. “This bloody family.”
There was no attempt to contact Anton’s father or his family. Anton wasn’t sure if he could still recall their names.
“How bad is it?” he had said, when the doctors had finally unveiled her. It had seemed a childish question to ask. They said they didn’t know and it wasn’t worth speculating. One pronounced for a viral heart infection. Another suggested she might have been poisoned.
“She’s hanging in there,” said Dig, as they sat in the dim light of the car. “They’ll work it out.”
“Yeah, well,” said Anton, “what if they don’t?”
Dig closed his eyes. He looked paler than ever, as though a years worth of sickness had bloomed in a single week. “They will, mate.”
His lip quivered, the mask slipping for a single beat. The world turned its back on Anton’s expectations.
He spent Saturday in a haze, toying with single strings and feigning shapes with his fingers.
The black chord rang out through the industrial air, as nauseous and alien as the knowledge that he had fostered its birth. He swung the guitar in an executioner’s arc, and felt the shock of impact ripple through his body. From somewhere above the whine of the amp, he heard the roar of an engine growing closer.
Dig returned from the hospital with a bag of Chinese takeaway. His eyes were bright with fury. With devastation and loss.
The doctors were clueless. She was stable they said, but showed no signs of improvement. She had woken a few times in a fever, complaining of bad dreams and asking for water. Dig had reassured her that the doctors were doing all they could, but it did little to calm her.
“I keep walking,” she said. “It keeps on calling, and I can’t stop walking.”
On Sunday morning, Anton found a dead sparrow on the windowsill outside his room. There was a small pink flower knotted around its delicate leg. He supposed it to be a sign from his monstrous patron.
He walked around the house, getting sicker by the minute. Dig found him in his bedroom, red-faced and sweating as he stabbed at the strings of his battered acoustic and felt it fail him with every weak riff. “Bloody hell,” said Dig, “you looking to break another one?”
Anton almost laughed out loud at the consistency of their positions. “Busy,” he said. His hands were rich with wormy veins.
“Can hear you from downstairs,” said Dig. “Bit full-on isn’t it?”
Anton thought about crafting some tired speech, digging in his head for the old rhetoric. He plucked a chord that sounded sweet and sober, and idly rubbed his chin.
“You mum won’t be happy about the one you broke.”
Anton shrugged. “It was an accident.”
Dig nodded, coughing into his hand. “Might have been, yeah. Don’t make it any cheaper though does it?”
Anton opened his mouth. He wanted to be stubborn, hard-headed, bitter as any vinegar. He wanted Dig to say that her sickness had revealed its cause. A forgotten trauma, something caught from the kids at school.
But he knew. He knew.
Dig nodded at the guitar. “What you working on then?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Tra-la-la.” He seemed to think this over. “Well, don’t go on all night,” he said. “And come and have some tea before you knacker yourself out.”
Anton sat alone on the bed. He no longer knew where he stood, or if he had ever stood for anything at all. He thought of Tobey and smiled (the tyrannical prick). Everything was so neatly squared away in their songs. Black and white. Good and evil. The rebels and the sellouts. It seemed a kind of morbid prophecy to have it all come true in the end.
He ran the neck of the acoustic through his hand, felt the tension of the strings, it’s knackered out charity shop aura once as precious to him as gold. Like a snowflake, infinite in perimeter.
Dig had bought it in Margate years ago. Anton had never expressed an interest in playing back then, but the old prick had known, even as he picked it up and pretended to know what he was doing, that it was right somehow.
Anton sat on the edge of his bed and saw it for the kindness that it was. He had fought that kindness all of his life. The divide he had craved, and so earnestly preached, was happening all around him. The good and the bad. The bad and cruel. It was time to choose a side. Rotten had managed it. So had Strummer, Graffin, Sane; you chose for yourself or let the world choose for you. And it would make you complicit in the pain that followed.
He felt the steel setting in his jaw. Let’s have it then.
They came for him that night.
“Are you ready young sir?” said Goatmoth.
Beetles scurried in his cavernous sleeves. Anton’s face became a shard of light in the darkness of their shells.
The theatre spun itself silently as they walked the long dark of the hallway. Black gore rained down outside its ancient windows, dotting strange houses with viscous coal. The ceiling swelled like some monstrous diaphragm, its horrific physics threatening collapse at any moment. Anton looked back, expecting something awful to appear and turning his head before it could.
The stage was larger than any he had played before. Its floorboards were stained with the rust of violent release. He slung the acoustic and climbed the small, wooden steps toward destiny. His footsteps were slow and deliberate and he did not recognise their steady tread.
“A lighter weapon than expected,” said Goatmoth. “I must admit to some surprise.”
Anton shrugged. “Starkness, innit?”
He thought of Dig up in Margate, his wry smile and secret thrill. I’ve done good haven’t I?
You did alright Dig.
He was feeling pretty confident until the audience filed in.
They were monsters. Real monsters.
The rebel piss went cold in his veins. He began to suspect that he had come to the final moments of his life. The whole enterprise felt abominably physical, desperately mortal. Revelations up the yin-yang – demons, angels, creatures of the night – and there he was with his battered guitar, stumbling around in that black cut-off vest he’d only bought to look like Laura Jane Grace.
They were inside with him. He could hear baby birds dying in their eggs and houses devouring their inhabitants, and that was just the opening act. The things that sat before him, so patient in their gilded seats, wanted more.
He’d seen his share of hostile crowds, but what he fought now had foul winds and foreign gravities on its side, and oh god, the air was so hot and so thin, and everywhere around him the opaque voids and melancholy moons –
“And now,” said Goatmoth, from the living dark, “a musical celebration in honour of his Most Esteemed Highness, the King-in-Mist.”
Anton blinked in the spotlight. His words were swallowed in the desert of his throat, barely audible above the twang of the guitar.
The audience murmured, grunted, moaned. Someone loosed a metallic cough.
This is what going mad in Hollywood is like, thought Anton, all throbbing colours and visitations.
He began to strum; a gorgeous, shimmering hook that repeated without end at his command. It built splendidly, a strong, steady whisper waiting for a turn to shout. He mouthed the words as he played along; Tobey’s sad, simpering tune for ginger Kevin O’Connor. He surprised himself with the passion he felt; with the zest and power he found in every bite of the steel.
He let it all go.
He gave it all up.
He smiled and he bowed and it was over.
Silence hung in the theatre. The monsters made music of their own; a muffled glossolalia that thrummed with evil auspice, whispering and snarling to their witchcat kin.
Anton held his breath.
There was a smattering of something like applause followed by a bout of prolonged coughing. A star-faced woman blew through her sphincter-shaped lips. “Is this the one that Flayspear likes?” she said.
The thing beside her shrugged its first set of shoulders. “Bit much for me. I’m going to get a drink.”
Up in the luxury box, a swollen thing turned in its slumber, violent skin weeping around its obscene spine. Its crown was lined with mucous.
Anton opened his mouth. “Oh,” he said.
Goatmoth was waiting in the wings, blinded by feverish beetles.
“Ill-advised and sentimental,” came the unrestrained pomp, “and hardly deserving of my sponsorship. You have taken a very great thing little one, and driven it into the ground.”
Anton stood very still as some maddening thing waddled towards them, an orb on brass pipe spider-legs. “Might be time for the shadow twins,” it said, drooling in three different colours.
“Yes, yes,” said Goatmoth, waving it away. He straightened up, and Anton felt a tremor of fear. He swallowed and thought of his mother.
“I could ruin you now,” said Goatmoth. His shoulders rose and fell with the sound of a mountain cracking. “You have done me a great disservice – “
“Look mate,” said Anton, forcing their eyes to lock, “you got your little song.
Deal’s done, alright?”
“I doubt the King-In-Mist – ”
“The King-In-Mist. Sort your life out.”
The sound of jeering started behind the curtain, and a woman with painted
flesh cried out for the next act. Goatmoth’s reply was reduced to sputter, as a glittering beast called from a nearby passage waving a battered, skin-bound ledger.
“I’m available for parties and weddings!” said Anton, and then a hand on his back was moving him towards the exit, saying something about the schedule.
“But I was – ”
“I’m sure you were,” said the voice behind the hand. It was oddly metallic. “Liked your song by the way.”
“Yeah? Cheers mate.”
“It’s all about the balance isn’t it?”
Anton moved quickly. Out the back and down the hall, moving ignorant of time into the wide-awake night. He smiled when he reached home, kicking himself for not saying the one thing that should absolutely have been said.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been –
He laughed out loud. Felt his fingers throb with life.
Not lately matey.
“Bloody doctors,” said Dig, to no one in particular. “Not got a bloody clue.”
Anton’s mum was more forgiving. “I’m sure they tried their best,” she said, hurrying to mark a set of papers that had languished in her absence. “Sometimes you just need a bit of pluck to get you through. Did you finish your weird song by the way?”
Anton shrugged, sulking in his hoodie. “Couldn’t be arsed,” he said. “Trying something different now.”
“Well I’d love to give it a listen when you’re done.”
She fiddled with the lid of a squat plastic bottle and placed a pill upon her
tongue. The sickness had left a mark she might carry all her life. Anton knew he would too.
Michael was delighted to receive his call. They debuted the new band two months later with a score of unpredictable tunes. It wasn’t great. A bit confused. Tobey was there, nodding appreciatively, until Richard hijacked his lips. But at least there weren’t any monsters.
“I’m obviously a lady. I have legs. I wear shoes. I drink lots of tea and like Ryan Adams. I like to read about ghosts and weird phenomena (which my friends think is equally geeky and hilarious). I eat Smarties on occasion and feel bad because they’re bastards. I've been told I'm kind and caring and interesting and all that guff, but it could all be filthy lies. It's just as likely that I'm also strange, eccentric and arrogant. I work in an office, which is very blah …
I’m divorced, so I guess that should be in here. No kids. Look how I have cleverly sandwiched this information.
I’m not looking for a Victorian gentleman or a knight in shining armour or anything (though I shall turn neither away!), I just want to meet someone interesting and fun who might be willing to talk at length about all the cack-handed wonky chaos in the world around us. Oh, and please be kind. Isn't kindness brilliant? Its shit hot is what it is.”
I was immediately impressed; as much a fan of her bold disclosure as her small mouth and little breasts. She told me later that after completing her profile, she had wandered over to Sadie’s desk, concerned that she might have been opening the door to a boatload of bug-eyed weirdos. Sadie didn’t even look up from her monitor screen. ‘You’re pretty weird yourself Kelly,’ she said.
I told her she was pretty on the first night we met. She wasn’t sure. I told her she was being too harsh on herself and then lied about my age.
The first bloke she met was called Adam, or Alan, she couldn’t recall. He’d once beaten up a premiership footballer in the toilet of a Dutch hotel and was thrilled to recount the tale. When he started using the condiments to relate his specific attack, she knew it was time to go. The second was Jim, who would have been okay if he hadn’t confessed to a lifelong string of debt and failed relationships before passing out in the taxi. The third was Jeff. He was alright. There just wasn’t that thing. She tried to explain the thing to Sadie once and received a shake of the head for her troubles. The fourth, another J, was Jack the Giant Killer.
She told me she was thirty-five. I told her I was a little older. Is it a lie if you can’t remember?
Annie died last winter. Black Annis. The existence of her coffin seemed preposterous. Like I was trespassing on a dream.
They left flowers for her in the graveyard. Burnt reds, valentine pinks, the occasional stray clematis. I thought about Vivian for the first time in twenty years.
A baby girl was crying as I looked out toward the crowd. From the podium, it looked like some kind of scrunched-up mole creature. I made a mental note not to mention changelings at the wake.
‘Here’s the deal,’ I said. ‘Any of you bastards leave without crying and I collect your fucking heads.’
John laughed out loud, ensnared in the middle row. He had hated the whole event. Hated the hymns, hated the prayers, hated Annie for dying Catholic and reigniting his longest war. The story had seemed unbelievable to me. A cannibal hag washes up in the Soar with her pockets full of stones and a rosary in her mouth.
‘What was she like?’ I said to the crowd. ‘Well, let’s be honest. She ate children.’ I paused to suppress a belch. ‘She ate kids. She wore their skin. Had I the chance, I’d have tanned her arse with an iron poker.’
A hot flush passed through my body. My vision began to blur. Wayland the Smith shook his massive head.
‘But she was one of us wasn’t she?’ I said (and I was going for it then, taking it all the way), ‘one of us poor forgotten buggers left alone in the dark.’
The eulogy had been cruel when I wrote it, in the swaying plastic toilet of a Leicestershire train. I’m not sure why I volunteered to speak. I suppose it was ego. Relief that my name still carried some sway. Shortly after its completion – and I had damned her, torn her into shreds with a neat little slip of my pen – a feeling settled within me that I could not fully identify. It was wider than loss, more consummate somehow. Before I could stop myself, I was shelling out for overpriced Mars Bars and German beer, mourning the loss of a blue-faced crone as the countryside swept up around me. I threw out the script. Decided to wing it instead. It would not be popular I knew, to stand up and rave, spewing half-developed rubbish about the long, inglorious fade.
I wasn’t bothered. The booze did its job throughout the recital, dragging me down some magnificent umbilical towards the halls of inebriate glory. ‘Bollocks to it!’ I cried. ‘Bollocks to all this elf-pride heritage rubbish!’
And then Tom was there, at the back of the crowd, just as the story required. I wondered how long he had waited outside, wrestling with his faultless solitude. I wondered how long he had fought to keep Vivian from his mind. Was he thinking about the way her back arched when she slept? How she sang, sloppy and passionate, through the crack in the bathroom door? He touched his nose and slipped outside. I suppose I should have been angry, but what would it have mattered? Annie was dead. Vivian was gone.
A rotund pastor tinkered with a stereo. A thin, dark woman began to wail. I leaned across the podium and drooled. ‘Did anyone else think that the last Blur album was a massive bag of shit? I’ll say one thing for old Iron Claws – she had some fucking taste!’
In ancient Greece, anything that was not a comedy was considered a tragedy instead. A kobaloi told me that.
The door swings noiselessly as Kelly enters the pub. She slides into a chair, working to sweep the hair above her ears back into place. This she does, according to her profile, because of a fear that they are overtly tiny. And they are. She says hello, smelling faintly of something floral. ‘Alright,’ I reply.
Our second date begins.
The Greenhouse is haunted, like all its clientele. I can no longer recall how long I might have been slumming beneath its roof. On occasion, I indulge myself the notion that I have always been here, am still here in thirty-odd years. This is the Greenhouse;
cheap drinks and mediocre landscape. Layer upon layer of surface.
Kelly has her thirty years all mapped out. Red wine and Netflix. Holidays in Spain. She is working under the assumption that I am a labourer by day, an invention whose success hinges entirely upon my assumption that it is far too bland to discuss. In a minute, I will inform her that I am in fact, a legendary slayer of giants. I will explain my interest in her as the product of … I don’t know, whatever it is that stirs within age-old bastards when their demented kin start jumping off bridges. If that works, I suppose I’ll ask her what her favourite cheeses are. She prods at the nylon frond that sits between us on the table. I stand up and get the beers in.
Wayland asked me if I was headed back home after the funeral. I told him that I was out of the game, that it wasn’t what he was thinking. He shook his head sadly and took me by the hand. ‘Everybody forgets,’ he said. ‘It is the curse of people.’
John felt differently. ‘Dereliction of duty,’ he said, swigging from a hip flask. ‘Takes the piss is what it does.’ I couldn’t really see his problem. He didn’t say much to me after that. Nobody did.
‘It’s not like he means to do it,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t really think about relationships in that way. It’s just a good time for him.’
Kelly shrugs. ‘Maybe there’s a reason for it.’
‘Oh, trust me,’ I say, ‘there’s nothing going on with Tom.’
We are three pints in and I have yet to mention the giants. I am instead jabbering on about that bell-end Tom Hickathrift. About how he knobbed his way around the island of eels and never worked a day in his life. How he used up Vivian – I don’t mention her name – and threw her away when he was done.
I want to tell her about his trip through Wisbech, about the football he kicked to the moon. How his mouth is cold and sensuous; his skin like permanent silk. I wonder how she would feel if I told her that my singular appeal has already been bettered by perfect Tom.
I scratch my beard and stare into my glass. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m not usually so full-on about people I know.’
She smiles, rolls her eyes. ‘It’s cool,’ she says. ‘You’re really not being that mental. Relationships fuck everybody up right?’
I try to return her smile. I am thinking about the time I laid down with a cobbler’s daughter in the Suffolk hills after killing a humpbacked giant. I told her about the magic trumpet I used to slay Galligantus, and only realised later the euphemistic power of the phrase. Is that a relationship then? Should I tell Kelly about the trumpet? I don’t know. It used to be I had Vivian to help me.
‘You’re probably right,’ I say. ‘It’s just … I suppose I’ve not had much experience in the whole dating thing of late.’
Kelly puts her drink on the table. ‘I know what you mean,’ she says. ‘You set out your defences, and try to dodge the right bullets, and it all goes wrong half the time anyway … ’
She curls her fingers as the words trail away. ‘I’m having a cynical one aren’t I?’ she says. ‘Sorry. I mean, it’s nice to think about people doing the things you hear about in songs – throwing roses in the rain and all that stuff – but nobody really does it. We try to live up to all this mythical stuff about how a date should be, or how a relationship should be, but it’s all just the same massive lie isn’t it?’
She disappears to the bar and returns with a bag of nuts. ‘Here,’ she says, skimming the ingredients. ‘A healthy snack, good for the bones. Free from all pretension.’
Outside the loo, a tiny woman is selling plastic roses. She might have some gnome-ish blood in her veins. Above her head, the words London Pork, Cumberland Ring are scrawled in chalk upon a blackboard. Kelly sniggers and I follow suit, surprised to find my doubt so readily slip away.
To look up then, at the plastic vines that covet the ceiling, at the artificial tree and the long wooden beams. All of it is just for show, and somewhere hidden is the heart.
She emails in the morning to say how much she enjoyed the evening. I respond after lunch, composing my reply whilst scanning the local news.
The café is cold and grey, indistinguishable from so many I have visited. Girls in white aprons move clumsily behind the counter, their disinterest as routine as their half-arsed cleaning. I swig my beer and paste another blob of data into the notepad. Monotonous piano notes tumble from a speaker, lending my investigation all the thrilling ambience of a trawl through a discount warehouse.
Wayland was right. A quick scan of the forum confirms the possibility. It’s all they’ve been talking about. Rose has linked reports of disappearing animals. Rowland has chimed in with photos. John has said nothing, and in doing so has said it all.
They are waiting for my reply. Waiting to see if twenty years has dulled the taste of that first defeat. Laughing behind their hands.
I check and recheck the photos. Three murky pictures of sodden Cornish mud. If you didn’t know what to look for, you’d never see the footprints.
I return to Kelly’s message. She is telling me about a book she is reading, chock full of wizards and beasts and epic romance. She tells me she once told the Prince of Wales to watch her bike while she went to use the loo, completely failing to register his royal aura until a bodyguard tumbled from a hedge.
I laugh. I tell her how funny it is. But want I want to say is; there’s a giant in this town and I probably have to kill it.
I knew when I left for the funeral. I knew when I posted my profile. My nose hasn’t failed me yet. I look around for Vivian, but she’s gone. People leave all the time I suppose. They just walk out the door.
Let us now speak of Tom Hickathrift, the giant slayer of Anglia. The man who once beat a giant to death with the body of an innocent miller and was rewarded with the governorship of Thanet.
I sometimes try to imagine a life for him outside of legend. Tom visiting his mother. Tom needing batteries for a remote control and choosing a size too small. Tom reading At the Mountains of Madness after a vicious argument and losing it when the dogs are killed. It rarely works. Something about the man just cannot be filtered. White-hot smugness inhabits his body like some ghastly deep sea parasite. I think of him now; lazy, gluttonous, herpes-ridden, shit-licking Anglian Brutus –
I am here Tom! Even when the world shuts its eyes, I am here, hiding in the reeds, dancing in the thickets, lurking behind bins and piss-wet doors, waddling the margins of a dwindling coast.
I’m still here.
I spend the afternoon in the park, sniffing around for giants. Someone has made a paper boat from the front page of a porno mag and set it adrift on upon the pond. I sit very still and think about that night. About burnt reds, valentine pinks, the ambush of a stray clematis. A solitary hair curler lurking in a birdbath. The tip of a sewer pipe waiting in the grass. That book she mentioned; Johnny the Partisan, her favourite in the whole wide world. The lake, the moon, the cicatrice; a feeling I couldn’t fight.
I pluck twigs from a tree and snap them in my hands. All these tedious myths. The same tat over and over – who needs it? I believe in grain, hops, yeast, water. A date that never ends, a restaurant that never closes. I believe in booze. I want to climb like a jungle cat through the bituminous branches of the old town, from the gothic bulk of Front Street to the dismal dens of the Ridge, a glass or five of evil in every hole along the way.
Vivian wouldn’t have approved.
I remember the pledge we made one June, sharing palms and impassioned forces. “I swear I will never betray,” she said, “and shall remain forever horny.”
She did. And she did.
I pass the torched husk of a Volkswagon Beetle, its navy blue frame turned twisted and black. I root around in the bone-white lilies that mass among the bushes. I find butterfly knives in the playpark. Giant catfish in the pond. And animal bones by the barrel-load beneath a long forgotten elm.
Vivian was a giant. My very own Irish giant. Our relationship presented several problems. Not least of which was the obvious. But who ever said I wanted to be a giant slayer anyway? You do some here and there – murderous shits the lot of them – and everybody wants your help. That’s the stories for you.
Yes, I’ll admit it; I hardly thought of them as people until I met her. And there’s been none since then; none save the Formorian those twenty years past, bellowing in the lightning as he lay me low to the ground. And did I win? I did not. I lost heart. A perfectly rational response I feel, to losing one’s very own heart.
Kelly gets in touch after work to see if I want to meet up for food. I surely do.
The restaurant is near empty when we arrive; it’s only other trade a mother and son eating quietly from muddy stoneware. The walls are hung with squares of abstract colour so unchallenging as to be almost invisible. People used to paint dragons.
Rain falls hard against the window. Kelly grins, her perfect teeth seeming to multiply each time they are unveiled.
‘So what would you do?’ she asks me, halfway through our opening conversation, ‘y’know, if you didn’t have to labour all the time?’
Out on the curb, a stick-thin girl quivers in the arms of her thuggish lad, his round face betraying little satisfaction as he probes the territories of her skirt. I sit very still and contemplate the solitude of my loins.
‘I dunno,’ I say. ‘Never really thought much about it. Why, what would you do?’
A waitress approaches the table, her heart shaped face veiled by a caul of ennui. She lowers a tray, revealing two bowls of stir fried noodles. She is gone before we can thank her.
‘Music, maybe,’ says Kelly, flicking a stray piece of meat across the table. ‘I used to play a lot of bass but I’ve never really done anything with it. Not that I’d go pro or anything. I’m a pretty big fan of avarice, but I’m also a bit of an elitist, and that’ll probably win out in the end.’ She dips a fork into her bowl and smiles. ‘See, I need to have flaws to counteract my brilliance.’
I clear my throat, unsure of what to say. I saw Humbert the Piper in Redruth once – will that be impressive at all? What about the Clash in ’76?
I ask her if she still enjoys her job. ‘Not really,’ she shrugs, as kamikaze pilots crash in spatters against the glass. ‘It is what it is.’
I nod. She props herself up on an elbow and loops noodles around her fork. ‘So, music,’ she says. ‘So what kind of stuff are you into?’
I look towards the doorway, tapping my bowl in contemplation. ‘I don’t really know,’ I say. ‘I like singles. I like things I can remember. Do people still think about that kind of thing?’ She shifts in her seat and leans closer. ‘The perfect life is just a bunch of singles piled up, tied together with string or something. You get three good minutes, and then you hang on for the next one. I mean, I’d like to be more than a three minute wonder, but maybe that’s all I am to some people.’
Kelly laughs. ‘Those lucky girls,’ she says, crushing a rice cracker between her teeth. The rain comes down in a sheet of lead. I can’t get the hang of my chopsticks.
Sometime later we are in a tiny club, shouting over deafening techno. The dancers are too self-aware to commit to liberation, managing at best a kind of half-hearted twitch as they shuffle across the floor. I nod my head ambivalently and drain another beer. A teen angel moves through me as she follows the noise, her features condensed to an alt-porn hieroglyph by a frost of sapphire light. I watch their eyes as they follow her. The boys sitting in silence. The old men grinding their teeth. I know I’m supposed to find her dark and delicious, but it all seems a bit silly to me. Calling anybody monsters or angels just pushes them outside the world.
Kelly makes her way towards the toilet. We share a smile as she pushes through the door. Both of us are pretending that we do not feel old in here.
A mobile sounds behind me, ten seconds of porno talk doused in analogue fuzz. A breathy woman is assuring someone that they are the biggest she has ever had. The owner’s decision to ignore the call annoys me considerably.
His hand is light as it falls upon my shoulder. ‘You’re looking for the giant,’ says Tom. ‘Have you checked behind the fridge?’
What a crap entrance.
He presses in beside me and leans across the bar. A tenuous balance is employed behind his eyes, though between what I cannot say. ‘You know, I saw your mum the other day Jack,’ he says, ‘She was walking around in Asda stealing tins of fruit. I’d have that taken care of if I were you.’
I force a smile. ‘Hello Tom.’
He tilts his head as I look past him for Kelly. A small golden crucifix swings in the folds of his neck, the muscle there taut like a bowstring. Darkness moves in the corners of his mouth.
‘You know,’ he says, as someone passes him a shot glass, ‘I heard from Andy that your mum’s fanny is like a bomb crater. Is that true Jack?’
I sigh. I am tired of this. I am tired of arguing over who killed the Bromford Hulk or which team would win a World Cup of biscuits. And yet, what else is left? Once one has acknowledged the directions, what is left but to play the part?
I shrug. ‘Might I counter Tom, by suggesting that your mother's chuff is a dark continent of rotten mince.’
He pats me on the pack as he downs his shot. ‘That’s the spirit matey. Let’s get down to business.’
He talks for what feels like an hour. I wonder where Kelly is; hoping she’s alright, praying she will not return. ‘I did one in Hull the other week,’ says Tom, checking himself in the mirror behind the bar. ‘Fucking Hull. You wouldn’t think it would you? You reckon they’re getting shorter?’
I say nothing. The ice water trail of my pint edges across the table. I wonder what terrible portents might be divined in its surface.
Tom wraps his arm around my shoulder, pressing his face against my own. His breath smells like aniseed. I wonder if he has ever had to shave.
‘I know – it’s not fair to ask,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t have a fucking clue. I know you haven’t done a fucking thing in twenty fucking years.’
He removes his arm and asks for another drink. ‘They think its genetics,’ he says. ‘Inbreeding, stuff like that. We’ve killed so bloody many and now they’re shagging their own to stay alive. Sick really.’
I begin to feel nauseous. Tom returns his attention to the mirror, his back rigid, face expressionless. ‘It’s our job you know,’ he says. ‘Our heritage. If it wasn’t for us, this island would be overrun.’
Kelly emerges from the toilet shaking her hands. Club toilets. What a nightmare. She spots me and does the get-the-drinks-in thing. I look around for an escape route. Tom is still talking. I have no idea how I can hear him above all the noise.
‘We have a purpose Jack. A proper place. Not like the rest of this shit.’ He spits the word as the barman hands him a shot glass. ‘You’re letting the side down mate. You’re pissing people off. And if you won’t do anything about that – ’
He downs the shot and gets up off his stool. His arms are around me before I can react. It is a brotherly hug in some ways, a true blue reflection of the bond we once shared. A woman stares as she arrives at the bar. Her eyes are dark and rimmed with smudge. Wrinkles fracture her makeup. We’re all going down the pan love.
Tom’s mouth finds my ear. ‘I do you next if I have to,’ he says. ‘You know what you’ve got here and you know what you have to do. So get it done Jack. Or I’ll do you. Okay? It’s terrible, I know – it’s a fucking tragedy. But it is what it is.’
And then he is gone, replaced by Kelly. She looks me over, unsure of what she has witnessed. She asks if I’m alright. I say it was just a mate. Tom looks back as he ascends the stairs, making a driving-wheel motion with his hands. ‘Public transport!’ he shouts. ‘Fucking wicked! I can get there in no time these days!’
Kelly reaches for her purse. I wave her away and fish out my wallet. ‘He’s a bit fierce isn’t he?’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘He is.’
I sit on the bed with a bottle of beer and remove the lid with my teeth. My stomach growls, as mindless as anything. There’s not much in the fridge, nothing in the larder. The rent will be due soon and I have not felt optimistic enough to calculate my wealth. I should have listened to Wayland. The petty rewards of mawkish villagers never last for very long. He went into antiques.
I slide onto my stomach and reach beneath the bed, where my real life is waiting like some nebulous being and all I have to do is recall. Remember.
Somewhere in time, Vivian is revealing my English skin. There is no begging, no scrabbling for power, only acceptance, only permission as she rides; a giant doll and a fat old man wobbling on a bed of grass. ‘Come into my body,’ she laughs, ‘it’s not so bad.’
People ask me – they laugh at me – when I tell them about our coupling. They make jokes about “broken equipment”. They enquire about physical compatibility. They don’t know that people in love can do anything.
They make the same jokes when I find Tom in her washtub. Their voices fall silent when he throws Herne’s favourite hound into traffic.
Vivian couldn’t stand it. She hated to be part of their tales. Hated being used to pass time around the hearth. I suppose that’s why she vanished. Even our best deeds are recreated, warped from afar by assumptions and disinterest. How often in our lives might we stumble upon the whole truth? Once, perhaps twice in a lifetime. “I love you” is a bucket full of holes (and a very pretty bucket it often is).
My back twinges as I open the box and retrieve the Sword of Sharpness. It gleams as it cuts through the gloom, leaving traces of itself in the lacerated air. If you have to look back, look back with capital letters.
I find myself roaming. The world is dark around me, like a soil rich with blood. I wind through the lanes behind shadowy houses. I cackle at lampposts, swipe at bushes, crafty as the prototypical wolf. From Gold Street onto the wasteland that lurks beyond the train tracks. I wander for a while until the path erodes into scrubland, dotted here and there by the occasional shed or warehouse. A shadow moves ahead of me, pacing slowly across the ground. What is that?
It slows to a halt and hunkers down beside a row of castellated fencing. Its eyes are fire; every fire of the unbiased wild. What lurks inside blood and bone but is larger by far. What is past is past and shall not return.
When Vivian left me for Tom, I imagined that the world was trying to say to me, “Jack, life is more than just a story.” I felt like raising my arms aloft and shouting back, ‘You’re having a fucking laugh aren’t you?’
Noises sputter on my tongue. Blood jumps in my chest. The giant growls.
Of course I followed it. Of course I did. I just didn’t know I had.
I lie in the ditch and groan. Hard roots press against my back. My legs are stiff and wooden. I don’t know if it saw me before I ran. They put a satire on me after the mess with the Formorian. I didn’t blame them. If they get another one out of this shite, let’s hope they resist the urge to go dubstep.
I scratch my arse and glower at the moon. I wonder what Kelly is doing. I’d like to read that book she mentioned. The one with all the heroes and monsters and whatnot. I’d like to meet that Sadie she’s always on about. I’d sit her down and point my finger and say, ‘Hey, she’s alright. Lighten up okay?’
I lie there still and breathe the ancient smell. Damp wood and earth. The giant is up there somewhere. Big and black and final. So be it then. We all fade into the calcite. We all lose track of the time.
At half past one I crawl out of the ditch. Everything is quiet. I dig in my toes and scrabble maniacally, reaching to grab at tufts of dehydrated grass. Were I any kind of real man, and not this in-between thing, I would be out of here in a jiffy. I would throw caution to the wind, shout bollocks to it all, and head back to town for a pint.
Real men don’t beg do they? And they die in single chairs, unshaved and overloaded. I drag myself onto the waste ground. My hands are pink and furious. The sword has left its shine down there in the dirt, but I know how to get it back.
Kelly opens the door in her dressing gown and asks what the hell I am doing. It’s a fair question. Equally, her point about the sword of sharpness bears some merit.
‘It’s funny isn’t it?’ I say. ‘Everybody looks, but nobody ever says anything. I think it’s just good old English politeness. Can we go somewhere?’
She folds her arms. ‘Why did you call me?’ she says.
‘I need to tell you something.’
‘You need to – oh my god, please don’t turn out to be crazy. What the hell have you been doing Jack?’
I shrug. Bits of mud fall away onto the welcome mat. ‘I spent the night in a ditch.’
‘You spent – are you drunk?’
‘No. I’m happy when I’m drunk.’
She takes a step backward and motions to close the door. ‘Wait,’ I say, ‘I didn’t mean that. That’s not what I meant. Just – I don’t want to wake up your flatmate and I really need to talk to you. I’ll leave the sword here okay?’
She stares at me for a while, until I am certain that another satire is on its way. And then, just like that, she tells me to wait while she gets her clothes on.
The beach seems to stretch forever at night, its coverlet of blues and purples like a thousand jewels for the taking. Kelly holds her breath, waiting for me to speak.
I lean forward and press my belly against the railing, laughing as I push myself up on my palms. ‘Still got it, never lost it,’ I say. ‘It must be all this cool night air.’
The blind surf toils noisily upon the horizon, an endless thing more felt than seen. R’lyeh is just off the shore. ‘So you’re a giant killer,’ says Kelly, staring at the sea.
I roll across the bar, flipping to land with pebbles at my feet. ‘Yep. I was good too. They wrote songs about me on their massive harps. Got to a point where I’d turn up and they’d just lay down for the pin. They could feel it you know?’
‘What?’ she says, without moving her eyes, ‘Your giant killing expertise?’
She’s right of course. It sounds pretty bloody mental.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I’m not asking you to believe me. I just wanted to tell you. You don’t have to see me again. I won’t follow you around.’
She fixes her mouth in a frown. ‘So how old are you?’ she says.
I stop to think. ‘Maybe … a thousand years? I don’t really know.’
‘Your profile said you were thirty-six.’
‘It also didn’t say that I had a three-headed uncle.’ I stare down at my feet. ‘You’d have just seen it as a bunch of whimsy anyway,’ I say. ‘Everybody does.’
She brings up her arms to ruffle her hair. A strained kind of sound escapes her lips. ‘I wrote that I was a musician,’ she says.
‘Well you are. You play bass don’t you?’
She sighs. ‘I guess I used to. I’m not really – I haven’t done anything in years. Not anything proper.’
‘I’m sorry it’s so weird.’
She turns her head as a tiny light drifts toward the harbour. ‘Nah,’ she says. ‘Being a weirdo is one of the best things you be. Long as you’re not going badger baiting or anything.’
A car drifts past behind me, loosing a cluster of leaves into a drain. ‘You don’t believe me,’ I say, slinking backward onto the bar.
She picks up a stone and throws it into the black. ‘I do,’ she says. ‘I believe in so many things.’
I tell her about Annie on the way. I want to be done with all the old rubbish. Swapped for bits to story-men? Used by sods for kindling? Not me. I’m defecting from the legend. No more, no less, then Vivian did long ago. Kelly asks me what the plan is. I wish I knew.
A man is waiting in the shadows when we arrive at the wasteland, folding and refolding his arms as if to dictate the seriousness of his intent. I reach for the sword of sharpness and curse under my breath. ‘Bloody hell Jack,’ says Tom, ‘I was starting to worry.’
He lifts a cricket bat from the dirt and swings in a perfect arc. ‘Who’s your friend then? It’s not a normal is it?’
‘You’re a fucking normal,’ says Kelly, stepping out in front of me. I feel a little thrill of pleasure before I recognise the danger.
‘Alright,’ says Tom, lifting his hands in surrender, ‘didn’t mean anything by it. Fucking hell.’
‘Kelly,’ I say, moving up beside her, ‘this is Tom Hickathrift. Tom, this is Kelly.’
Tom lifts an eyebrow and nods. For a moment, I am seized by the fear that she will fall for his lone-wolf bullshit. Something rumbles in the dark behind him, a train I think until I realise the distance.
‘Well,’ he says, unable to contain his excitement, ‘Sounds like game on to me.’
He digs in a bag at his feet and produces a foot long iron bar. ‘It’s alright,’ he says, as though we might be friends after all, ‘I’ve got plenty for everyone.’
The giant moans softly as we approach. Its right leg is twisted at an awkward angle, its kneecap a bloody smudge. ‘Poisoned the bastard,’ says Tom, pressing an ear against its chest. ‘We’ll leave that bit out of the telling. Professional courtesy. You’ve got your shot if you want it.’
Its eyes are blank, uncomprehending. He was right about the size. I could barely fit my head inside its mouth.
‘Oh my god,’ says Kelly, perched queasily upon a paving slab. Her face is the colour of tallow.
‘It’s not that big,’ says Tom. ‘We’ve done bigger haven’t we mate?’
The giant’s breath comes in shallow bursts. I could do this one easily. Do it and get back on the horse and no one would be any the wiser.
Tom holds out a mallet as I approach him. I lift it easily and press the bar against the giant’s forehead. There is something cro-magnon about it; the steep, dismissive forehead, the hands prepared to smother. Its feet are wrapped in carrier bags. Like a tiger in the circus waking without teeth.
Kelly moans in accord with the giant. I wonder if she is crying.
‘Come on,’ says Tom. ‘While we’re young.’
I look across at him; wondering if he knows what he has said. I feel dazed, half-awake. The mallet shakes in my hand and Tom frowns. ‘Fucking hell,’ he says, ‘what have you got without this?’
‘What have you got?’ I say. It’s weak, and we both know it. And then he is beside me, his mouth against my ear again, his hand against my back. ‘You know what makes us different Jack?’ he says.
Sweat begins to pool on my forehead. ‘No,’ I say.
I nod, and hold the mallet aloft. The giant begins to drool. I notice for the first time its missing teeth, the dogshit spooled across its back. And then Kelly shouts my name and throws a rock and it almost takes Tom’s face off.
‘What are you doing?’ she shouts, as she storms across the wasteland.
I grab her arm as she slips on a vein of desiccated turf. Her eyes are bright and blazing. ‘It knows Jack,’ she says. ‘It knows.’
She doesn’t though. She doesn’t know about the killings and the feasts and the stolen babies. About the men who fought for her rigid world and still twitch in their unmarked graves.
But that’s not the whole story, is it?
One more glance into the dark. One more push against the gates. All the pieces of a man laid out for the final time.
‘It’ll wear off soon,’ I say, ‘they heal up pretty fast.’
She takes the mallet and puts it on the ground. She wants to lose it for a little while. That’s okay. I tell her we’ll get out of here.
Tom stirs in his slumber. His head is bleeding a little. I help him up and make for the taxi rank. I wonder if we might be even now, but what would that take in the end?
I shake my head at the giant. ‘Don’t eat any more dogs,’ I say.
We come back from the railway and stop by the bridge. It’s cold. I remind Kelly not to talk about any of this. She stuffs her hands in her pockets and nods. ‘I’ll be off soon,’ I say.
A drop of snot falls from her nose. She coughs. ‘Yeah.’
I dig around for some tissue. ‘You know that thing, folie a deux?’ I say, mangling the pronunciation. ‘It’s French. The Fox told me about it. It means ‘a madness shared by two’.’
She shakes her head, wondering where this is going.
‘Everyone’s mad,’ I say. ‘Everyone’s got something. You can’t fit it all into some little box on a screen.’
We stand beneath the stars of a strange new world and note their astonishing indifference. I don’t know what she’ll do with the sword of sharpness. Chuck it on eBay I suppose. I did the same with Drake’s Drum.
‘When you go back into work,’ I say, ‘you should find that Sadie and tell her that she’s full of rubbish. That she doesn’t have a bloody clue.’
She nods. Her face is hidden in the dark. ‘I feel like I should have some point to make,’ she says. ‘A bit of wisdom. That’s how these things usually end, right? With a lesson?’
‘You didn’t like that “everybody’s mad” bit then?’
‘Well. It’s a bit of a platitude.’
I think of Vivian as we climb the bridge and wonder if maybe she got it right all along. Maybe we were the ones that dropped a bollock. I walk down after Kelly ten minutes later and decide to keep walking. Maybe if I just keep on going, I’ll one day run out of story.