by Ian M Macdonald
TERRY a man in yellow, shining rubber gloves—a big, swollen gentleman with rashes—fat and powerful but scared of the rain. He wears a spit-stained t-shirt tucked into a pair of Levis jeans that are fastened tight with a thin, rotten, black leather belt. He smells of damp wooden boards and wears tough steel-cap work boots although he cannot work anymore and has not done for many years. He sinks a yellow pill, a blue pill and an orange, triangular vitamin tablet.
Terry is often seen marching first one way and then the other along the road at the edge the large housing estate. The road encircles the isolated community of low-paid families, methadone addicts and flaky-skinned old men. A road too narrow for purpose – even without the parked cars lining both sides of it, their left-hand wheels mounted on the pavements – a good deal of the route is wide enough for just one car and there are horns and frenzied reversals frequently; arm around the passenger headrest, twist head and bark at car behind. Between seven in the morning and nine at night, the road is home to a ring of traffic seemingly damned into driving around an inescapable loop of commuting. Bald men in white vans and girls with large, hooped earrings and cigarettes between their sovereigned fingers skid around tooting, going nowhere and somewhere but all late whatever.
Brakes screech and engines rev in battles to pass each parked car blocking the road. Some of the cars block the pavement and as Terry storms backwards and forwards he knocks the cars from his way with huge hands; covered by his XXL yellow rubber gloves. Elderly women watch him from behind their net curtains, squinting, and when he has passed they sit on green-brown armchairs and wait for him to walk by again.
Sometimes he returns clockwise with orange plastic bags, sometimes he goes counter with the bags and returns with none. Sometimes he skips elegantly like a ballet dancer in knock-off designer clothes and sometimes he stumbles and bounces like a leaden pinball between the cars and garden fences.
One day as he passes Mrs Cridland’s house—an ancient and nosy recluse whose curtains twitched more than most—he stops suddenly and bends double to spew stringy, grey sick onto the pavement. And then he falls into her gate. It goes with a snap and the wood splinters and cuts Terry and Mrs Cridland pulls back her net curtains to see. She opens her mouth wide to scream and taps manically on the glass, but all of her effort comes silent through the double-glazing and Terry slinks off, oblivious.
His feet drag on the path as if in chains and some three houses down he falls into another gate, this one belongs to Steve, a muscular and skin-headed builder. The gate to number 87 snaps and splinters and then begins a shouting match which only ceases after a few minutes when Terry bends double once more, coughs hard, and a thin dribble of blood emerges from the side of his blistered mouth. Steve grimaces as Terry continues on his course then, heading for the northern edge of the estate.
Terry navigates the labyrinthine streets through the centre of the development, past chipped pebbledash, stained bricks and rusty swings. He stumbles through alleyways and then over the green in the very centre of the complex where children wearing baseball caps and sitting on BMXs shout at each other, they are smoking cannabis resin while they should be at school or at work. They turn to bellow at Terry then and laugh arrogantly. FUCKING SPAZ, they cry as they spit diesel hue into the grass.
When Terry reaches the north side of the estate, he crosses the stinking road and throws an orange carrier-bag over the wall. Some twenty-feet below, where the tracks head west, the bag falls happily rustling and then lands with a sober thud at the side of the tracks between rail and bracken. Terry coughs and grumbles and begins his way back to where he came from.
THE BELL AND HAMMER a busy boozer just down from bridge 571, Steve is leaning on a green plastic table out the front, the table is fag-burnt and warped, neglected through uncertain seasons.
‘I’m going to kill that fucking cunt,’ Steve says.
A beer garden of sorts—the green plastic the only greenery—it offers a view of the busy road that loops around the estate. At 6pm the cars still circle around the hive; lazy summer evening drowsy bees.
It seems that no-one ever leaves the estate at night. A rush of builders and nurses move out in the morning and in the evening they return. A solitary bus constantly navigates the road, itself becoming sucked into the inescapable ring of traffic. Old women can be seen pulling themselves up onto the bus at certain stops and flashing their OAP passes. They sometimes disembark at the shops opposite the pub to pick up groceries, walking with their heads down past groups of track-suited children who lean on the shop windows and stamp on fag ends. Then over the road are the builders, the unemployed, the undisclosed merchants, all unwinding in The Bell and Hammer.
Steve watches the kids smoking and stamping as darkness begins its fall. Red light of the dipping sun illuminates the smog hanging over the road from years of exhausts pumping.
‘Is my kid over there?’ he says to Mike; a man that looks much like him but fatter. A beer-belly hangs over his belt.
‘Dunno,’ Mike says as he finishes his pint.
‘If my son’s over there with them scrutters again, I’ll murder him too.’
Steve searches the faces beneath the caps carefully, looking for his son.
But Steve’s son wasn’t at the shops, in fact, he had been at home fixing the gate that Terry had crushed earlier that day. His mother had punished him with the task after she found him smoking hashish on the green again. He didn’t have the foggiest idea of how he should go about fixing the gate, but he started with some wood-glue and nails and now he has it almost completed as the sun dips behind the houses across the road. There are no stray bits around but it still has a pointed piece of wood missing at the top. He can’t see it anywhere. Whatever; the gate is wonky but it will do its job as well as it had done it before, even with the missing shard. He wonders what its job actually was in the first place if it couldn’t keep out a retard.
NUMBER 93 and Mrs Cridland is screaming in pain. She clutches her chest, stumbles around the room in a panic. Every few paces the pain becomes too much and she stops and shakes, her knees giving way. Outside through the double-glazing—cheap and installed by perfectly competent tax-evading cowboys—all is silent as Steve walks past on his way home. Mrs Cridland makes it to the front door and begins to undo the locks and slide across the chains, but the bottom Yale is too stiff for her weakening arms and she collapses dead before she can open it.
TERRY is on the telephone. He forces words out between the pants of anxiety and wipes his sweaty face with a rubber gloved hand.
‘HELLO THIS IS TERRY MAY I SPEAK TO DANIEL CROFT PLEASE MY NAME IS TERRY,’ he waits but Daniel is not in, ‘CAN YOU TELL HIM TO CALL ME PLEASE MY NAME IS TERRY. TERRY SMITH.’
The woman says something else.
‘THANK YOU,’ Terry huffs and then he hangs up.
His pulse races and his lungs heave, his t-shirt is covered in bright blood. Coughing and wincing at the pain, what was this painful leak a pill didn’t fix, he thinks. A fresh dribble of red runs down his chin.
Next morning Terry awakes in the same armchair he had passed out in the previous night. The sun lights up his face, burning him; his already blistered and red skin is cooking. He screams and rolls out of the sun’s path as plumes of smoke pour upwards from his flesh. He picks at it and peels it—the hide—and it rips to reveal the maroon, wrinkled and oozing muscle beneath.
Terry tumbles along the paths again. This time he has no bright orange carrier bags. He sweats, the salt stings his wounds and the sun burns his back. He walks past the gate he had smashed, now repaired, he walks past Mrs Cridland’s house, her lifeless body still curled up in its own excrement behind the door with fingers steadily stiffening around the bottom bolt. He walks past the kids on their BMXs who stand silently and stare as Terry bounds over the green, their mouths hang open and their skin drains of its colour. They can see now the pointed piece of wood sticking out of Terry’s back all covered in blood and small flecks; anonymous pink lumps from some organ or other inside Terry’s body. Out on the northern road, a car is hit in its rear as it brakes hard to avoid Terry as he crosses over to the Northern side of the railway bridge. Standstill all of a sudden but horns still and the unlocking of doors, shouts and gatherings of the nothing-but-interested to watch the dented metal and logjam. A symphony of accident starts to play from the road as Terry leans over the brick wall of the bridge. Watching the tracks below and the piles of bright orange carrier bags beside each rail, he thinks of all the mornings he has gone into the supermarket and bought all that food only to throw it over the bridge—the bread, the steak and cheese, huge legs of ham and tins of beans—he feels hungry now and he wonders when he had last had his pills; a yellow one, a blue one and an orange vitamin tablet. He can’t remember. Time was an uninteresting mystery most of the time and a confusing one now through his anaemic haze. Feeling his stomach with his hands, it seemed less bloated than usual, and it is then he realises his trousers have fallen around his ankles and his shirt is far too big for him. He lifts a hand to his face but withdraws it after it slips under his skin and he feels the edge of bone around his eyehole. Then the sun disappears behind an arrogant cloud.
THE BELL AND HAMMER over the road and Steve says shit as it turns cold with the disappearance of the sun, just as it was looking to be a beautiful Saturday. Few drinks in the local and then off to town, Steve thinks as he walks into the pub with his son, both of them indifferent to the traffic jam, the battered cars, the piss-taking and the trading of insurance details; oblivious too of Terry, who lay bent over the brick wall of the bridge a short distance away.
A few moments later they emerge from The Bell and Hammer, Steve with his pint of ale and a bitter-shandy for the kid. Steve lights a fag and his son looks at the big old mess around them. Onlookers and victims are arguing with each other now about where the blame is to be placed as a lorry driver leans from his window further back in the queue, shouting. Old women peer with their noses turned up from the bus as the driver opens up the door and steps out to join the rabble.
Terry lies over the bridge wall, no longer breathing and his trousers around his ankles, the rear of his yellowing y-fronts fully exposed to the estate. What blood hasn’t dried on its path from mouth to chin is dripping down far below onto the tracks and then onto the roof of a train as it passes beneath, heading for the city.
Out of Terry’s back the piece of wooden fence is stuck, pointing up to the sky as if in accusation.
‘Hey, Dad,’ Steve’s kid says, adjusting his cap. ‘There’s that bit of our fucking fence.’
Steve takes his eyes away from Terry to give his son a slap around the head.
‘Watch your language, kidder!’
Steve sucks on his cigarette.
‘Poor old cunt,’ Steve says, as he watches the lifeless giant and the tiny truck driver who is jogging towards the body now, a phone in his hand and sweat on his brow.