By Michael Goddard
The first act of the day is to unfurl myself from the spine-busting position in which I sleep–feet wedged beneath the mattress, half twisted torso, a brick in a pillow propping up my back, and an iron plinth providing the neck grip.
Yawning, I assess the results. “Disappointing,” I have to tell myself.
Outside my window I see the flat-block’s population has gathered in a vigil around the communal duck ponds.
There are counsel vans and police milling about, looking officious. Frogmen are dotted in the lake, netting up the thirty-plus corpses floating on the bloody water. Miscellaneous adults are stood about consoling their children and even the obligatory toughs look crestfallen.
I gather someone’s ripped the bills off all the ducks in the night. The concrete bank is smeared in muddy red streaks and bird carcasses.
I’ve taken to making sudden lurching bends when walking. I’m trying to catch my muscular system out and cause a rupture, but I’ve only succeeded in making myself look a little daft.
I take out the two watering-cans full of hardened cement from the cupboard under the sink. After strapping the weights round my neck, I leave to run at a painful right angle up the twenty five staircases ascending through the block.
If another resident should happen to pass during this drill, I lurch up vertical, throw some jabs and pretend I’m a boxer in training.
I should explain, all this anxiousness is due to telling Spencer I was going to miss her while she was away.
Spencer works at the kitchen too. Three weeks ago–after her final shift before she went abroad –I said, unexpectedly to both of us, “Spencer, have a nice time. I’m going to miss you.”
I think my naked sincerity unnerved us both.
It’s nearly eight. It’s time to bike it to work, which I am grateful for. Otherwise I’d only start dwelling.
My self abasement does not distract me from my work as I’ve managed to successfully combine the two. With robotic efficiency I take every opportunity to lift sacks of potatoes and crates of tinned pineapple-chunks awkwardly, twisting my pelvis to excessive levels when turning.
I like my job as a kitchen porter but the chefs do not like me. The five-manned kitchen is situated conveniently at the foot of the lunch hall. Head Chef Paul’s got red hair, Chinese letters tattooed on his bloated forearms and a perpetual smirk.
“Have a bite,” Paul asks me, “tell me what you think.”
I take the innocent looking sandwich from his hands, hold it to my lips and smell petrol. “Concocting a new dressing, Paul?”
“I’m only trying to have a joke with you,” he smirks defensively. “If someone gave me a sandwich marinated in unleaded, I’d laugh.”
“Waste of food,” I say, then to emphasise my displeasure I turn away from Paul and bend over in a flash and touch my toes, then calmly draw myself erect. Paul’s shuffled back a step during my surprise manuever and now looks more confused than ever.
“You’re getting stranger, and that’s saying something when you’re that anxious. What the hell did you just do?”
“Exercise. It tightens my abdominal wall.”
“You’ll slip a disk.”
I take a squelching bite from the tainted sandwich I’m still holding, chew the bread up open-mouthed, then let the mulch slop from my maw and onto the floor. “Sorry, Paul, I’ve got to clean this mess up. I can’t chat.”
Paul’s grown suddenly bored, I’m pleased to see.
“Did you see the commotion by your flats this morning?” he says.
“Yeah, someone’s killed all the ducks: chiseled their beaks off in the night.”
“Type of maniac would do that?” Paul asks, eyeing me with naked suspicion; or maybe it’s just lust, I can’t tell and don’t really care.
I drop to the floor and begin edging the wet pile of bread, petrol and spit into a red plastic dustpan. From this angle, I make a point of staring directly into Paul’s groin, until it turns around and recedes back into the kitchen.
In the cloak and apron room I rescue my coat from where it’s been stuffed inside the bin meant for peelings. I take from its pocket a huge luxury chocolate bar.
The confectionary is embedded with orange truffles and the outer rim’s cookie. It smells of kept promises and good moods.
I used to routinely offer Spencer a similar chocolate bar whenever we worked together. I’d show her that I’d brought two and that I wanted her to have one. That was nice.
She always refused though, sporting a sweet half-smile and her huge gravy-brown eyes glowing irresistible and languid.
I miss her so much I could quit, or cry, or both, I really could.
I munch down a humble cube of the tasty treat then, revitalised, head back in to get sluicing.
Stood by my wash station, elbow deep in soapy grease, I smell smoke. I put the half scoured grease-trap on the draining board and trot to the back door and see someone’s set my bicycle on fire.
I rush outside clutching the plastic tub we use for bleach soaking the dish cloths and cast the whole sorry lot over my bike.
Looking up along the school building’s high eastern side, I notice the pupils and teachers aren’t laughing; but there’s an unmistakable smirk on Paul’s face.
I take off my apron, scrunch it up and launch it in the bin. I feel glad to be leaving the grounds for town.
It’s one of those rare magical moments: Spencer’s standing at the bus-stop. Her hair is back-from-holiday-massive, she looks fantastic.
“Hi Spence’, check us out socialising outside of work.”
She smiles but I can tell she’s been crying as her eyes are bloated.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
Spencer tells me she got an abortion on Tuesday, broke down and told her mum on Wednesday and today her parents had the dog put down.
I don’t know where to begin but before I know it we’re cuddling. She feels wonderful.
“If you wanted to get out for a bit, you could come round and watch movies tonight if you like?”
Spencer says she’d love to.
Before we end the cuddle – she kisses me on the cheek and leaves her lips pressed there. It’s the most magical feeling in the world.
With her lips bouncing against my cheek, Spencer tells me she has to go see her ex-boyfriend and collect the money he owes her for the termination.
She also reassures me that her dog was old anyway.
Before Spencer leaves our unorthodox embrace to board the bus, we arrange our movie marathon for a sexy nine p.m. start.
Walking home I find everything’s been rendered beautiful.
I want to apologise to my back, as with any luck I’ll need it after all: it’s a miracle she held.
Once settled indoors I prepare a buffet of back care; glucosomine spinal rub, petroleum-based menthol muscle balm, two microwaveable hot water bottles full of pliable lavender corns, some hydrating deep-heat bubble bath.
Whilst soaking and rubbing I can’t wait to throw the watering cans full of cement down the flat block’s garbage shoot.
I feel released into life.
I stuff Spencer some peppers with brie, smoked tofu, red pesto, shitake mushrooms and feta. For a side I glaze her some basil roasted parsnips in parmesan and honey.
I arrange three house-sized cushion chairs before the television. I’ve got chilled pear cider, expensive whiskey and, though dwindling, there’s still a few of my mum’s prescription painkillers milling about – but I’m not sure if Spencer will be at all interested.
Half an hour before Spencer’s due to arrive, I look outside to the lake. Bouquets of death flowers have been arranged everywhere, with the smiling heads of soft toys poking up through the petals. Big boxes of chocolates, rubber ducks and cards as well, a few joss sticks smoking in the cold; but not a single living human soul about.
There are two foxes ambling through the tributes though, one of them carrying a brown paper bag between her teeth which bares the mark of a disreputable chicken joint in town.
The foxy beasts are laughing and jostling each other, either being oblivious to the sombreness of the dead duck ghost town or wholly disrespectful – with mounting rage I find their display is exactly fitting to a pair of duck murderers!
I stuff a hunting knife and scabbard onto my belt strap, throw my feet into army surplus boots and bolt downstairs.
Outside I am a madman, swinging my blade ready to gut the foxes that have brought so much sadness to the community by killing our friends. Eager to remonstrate with the predators, furious with the bastards; my knife is hellish sharp.
What greets me as I twirl onto the grounds by the communal ponds makes me dive onto the grass with a thump.
The two foxes are stood trembling and subordinate before what looks like a rusted oil drum with white mop-heads glued all over its flank.
The pleated drum is now in possession of the chicken bag and I note in the dim light that there are blood splashes and duckbills matted into the beast’s fur.
“Oh just take it,” one fox pleads, attempting to shield the smaller fox away from the malignant presence of the woven drum, “it’s only our tea.”
“Don’t get cute,” the hairy oil-drum growls, “or I’ll taxidermy your ears together.”
The creature seems a cross breed of guinea-pig, warthog, bear and bastard. The smaller fox turns to flee but the guinea-pig bites down onto its ankle with horrifying speed – it thrusts its trotter-claw into the bigger fox’s eye socket and that’s when I make my move: as foxes or not, a mugging is a terrible experience.
So off I charge roaring at them, knife held blade down and slashing viciously at the air and commanding the uncanny mutant hog to “stop what you’re doing and die!”
But it runs off startled instead.
As I pass, the female fox gives me an encouraging nod.
The creature, scattering a trail of duckbills and half-sucked fried chicken legs, hops into the large bike shed bunker. This building is my least favourite spot for a showdown, it is spidery dark in there and stinks of foreboding and tragedy.
The bike shed’s become the flat block’s sarcophagus to busted exercise bikes, some gunk-spattered colanders, stacks of expired fizzy drink tins and shrink-wrapped kosher meatballs. The floor swims in the scum of a rancid minestrone soup-like-ectoplasm, which splashes up and into my frayed boots.
The brittle light is as unwelcoming as my blade is vast. I’m asking the gloom walking on a slow track forward. “Why did you kill our ducks, friend, why did you kill my friends?”
Inevitably, just when I need to pay full attention in keeping the old warrior instincts keen, the image of Spencer’s lovely face flutters into my brain-eye and I drop my knife.
As I’m stood there debating whether to flee or fight, I stoop to pick up the dropped weapon and my third vertebrae slips from its lodging and, now irrevocably herniated, pops through my back skin with a wet slap.
I am beyond paralysed – my knees lock half bent, arms shoot out to gain some balance and my neck snaps back so I am staring at the ceiling. With my face contorted in agony, I look across the low tiers of bike shed roofs and the snarling creature’s open mouth headed for my nose.
With a rich sadness I realise Spencer’s going to be left waiting alone and that this vile thing can’t wait to suck the jelly from my knee-caps, like they’re two cheap barbecue wings.