The Essex Executioner

David N. Guy is a gentle man, or so his admirers say. And yet he kills for a living. Simone Piss investigates.

The moment stretches out forever.

It’s Monday. A lazy summer afternoon in the small Essex village of Woodham Walter. The sun shines over the village green. There’s a small queue at the tombola table, and a slightly larger one at the cake stall. Children jump endlessly on the bouncy castles. A couple of grandmothers slumped half asleep in deck-chairs. Morris dancers jig in time with the rhythmic futtering of a sprinkler watering a nearby lawn.

And up on the makeshift stage at the centre of it all David N. Guy raises his axe towards the sun and prepares to swing it back down onto the neck of the man tied to the butcher’s block.

Onto, and through.

_______

The first time I came across the name David N. Guy, I was amazed I hadn’t heard of him.

It was a small report hidden in the mass of political wailing in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, a piece of end-of-programme fluff designed to let you leave the 6 o’clock news feeling vaguely uplifted rather than suicidally despondent, announcing cheerfully that David had become the first Essex executioner for 600 years to notch up 5000 county-sanctioned killings. (I got the feeling that the county-sanctioned modifier was probably quite important for the saliency of this fact.) And with the report a grainy reproduction of a picture of an unremarkable man in a stained and grubby t-shirt, his arms crossed over his voluminous slab-like breasts, his expression blank beneath his beard.

How could someone have managed to kill 5000 people without me (or, indeed, any of my friends or colleagues) having heard of them? How could a county apparently so close to civilisation (Essex being, surprisingly, less than 30 miles from London) still have its own executioner? And how could its people not only tolerate him but venerate him?

I became, it must be said, quietly obsessed with the man over the next few weeks, and I set out to find out as much about him and his work as I could.

“Most of us are only familiar with the popular image of Essex presented to us in the media,” says Professor Hugh Crabb over the phone from his office in the Department of Essex at Waltham Forest College in Walthamstow, London. “Lust-crazed vanity, bellowing bald-headed thuggery, right-wing nationalism, endless self-destructive automobile-based eroticism not even JG Ballard could have envisaged, West Ham fanaticism, that sort of thing. But there’s a dark side to Essex too.”

And nothing illustrates that better than the figure of David N. Guy himself.

_________

Arkesden, Tuesday. A farmer’s field. An audience of crows.

He lifts the heavy stone, holds it above the man on the altar’s chest, slowly lowers it down. We hold our breathe while the stone holds his.

Eventually, we breathe out. From the altar only silence.

________

The washed-out photo on the news coverage didn’t do him justice.

We had arranged to meet an hour before the first of his killings I’m lucky enough to witness, the beheading at Woodham Walter.

He looked taller in the flesh than his officially-stated 6 foot 2, heavier than his admitted 20 stone. His beard was a dense knotted mass, deep enough and wide enough to give the impression that his head was wider than his shoulders and larger than his belly.

He wore a red t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of brown shoes. His glasses were too small for his eyes.

His hands were a few pounds of meat. His neck was unseen.

“You’re a woman,” he says.

I nod. I’m impressed he noticed.

“I always thought Simone was a boy’s name.”

I shake his hand and it is more moist than I would like.
_______

On Wednesday in Helions Bumpstead, David peels a woman like a fruit and then dresses her in a silken shroud and together they go to the tombs like a macabre bride with her morbid groom.

_________

David has very strict rules in place to ensure the quality of his service is never negatively impacted by the demands of county’s magistrates. He will only carry out one execution a day. He needs to be fed both before and after the killing. There must be at least chair of a suitable sturdiness available for him to sit on pre- and post-slaying. And he absolutely has to be informed about the prescribed method of justice he is to administer to his “patient” at least 24 hours before he arrives in the town.

On this last point of order he reluctantly elaborates.

“I don’t want to sound critical of the various district authorities, but…,” David explains. “It’s okay here in the centre. You always know what to expect. It’s always some mundane method of death, an axe to the neck or a noose or a good old fashioned throttling. The sort of thing I could do in my sleep. But the further out you get the more esoteric their desires, and the more exacting the demands upon my skills. It’s important you know what to expect. You don’t want to get there and find out you’ve got to do something beyond your knowledge.”

He speaks in a bland Essex wail of dropped consonants and monotonous vowels which betrays no hint of excitement or disgust at what he’s describing. And in many ways I find this resigned matter-of-factness more disturbing than if he’d been a cackling gleeful mess of erotic violent desires.

What sort of thing do some of these places require?

“In Dovercourt they like you to use a spoon. In Mundon they expect ice. In Langenhoe fire. And in Bradwell once I had to cut the tip off a man’s toe and suck the blood from his body.”

He pauses and looks at me with his mesmeric bovine eyes.

“All the blood.”

Is there any methods he doesn’t like having to do. Any places he dreads to go.

“Crix,” he says eventually. “There’s many machines in Crix. I don’t like machines.”

_________

The people of Herongate require him only to watch as the victim is lowered into the churning heron pit. To watch and to witness and to confirm.

_______

How does someone go about becoming an executioner, I ask.

“Ah, they picked me out at primary school,” David says. “Said I showed great aptitude for it. Although as far as I could tell the extent of my aptitude was that I was taller than everyone else, and fatter.”

There must have been more to it than that, I say. Some inherent violence, perhaps. Or a particular dexterity in handling weapons.

He shakes his head. “Well, there was also my necklessness. The priest said it was a sign.”

A sign of what?

David shrugs his shoulders. “The beard probably helped make up their minds, too.”

_______

At Layer-de-la-Haye on Friday, I witness a sight of such staggering depravity I know not how to describe it, nor even, having witnessed it, if I can believe it to have been truly possible.
_________

For someone doing such an unglamorous job, David seems to have developed a small but dedicated following. On twitter there are two accounts dedicated to his deeds: @essecutioner, which is a somewhat prosaic list of his upcoming appearances and matter-of-fact descriptions of the method employed for each and every death; and @sexycuteoner (pronounced sexy-cute-shoner), which is somewhat less serious-minded and also inextricably erotic. There is also a related tumblr, but we cannot link to it here. His reviews on yelp are unanimously positive.

I ask him how he feels about all this attention.

“I don’t really follow all that stuff. I don’t really understand it. Mobile phones and things, it’s all just… I’m from a different generation to all that.”

He is 38 years old.

________

At Maldon he takes the child out into the mud on Saturday morning and when he comes back at the turning of the tide he is hauntingly alone.

_________

Only once in the week I spend with David do I wonder if he ever thinks about what his victims have done, about whether they deserve to receive his undoubtedly professional ministrations.

This is when I find him weeping two hours before the seventh (and last) execution I am to see, an old lady in Goldhangar who, I find out later, has been convicted of eating mulberries.

“I don’t like it when they’re old,” he says. “They remind me of my grandparents.”

Does he ever consider whether there crimes are great enough to justify the severity of his punishments, I ask. He says he never knows what they have done, and that it wouldn’t matter even if he did.

“It’s not for me to decide. It wouldn’t be justice if I could just arbitrarily decide whether to carry it out or not. It’d be tyranny. And besides I’m just carrying out a job, same as anyone else. It’s the magistrates who make the choice. If I didn’t do it, no doubt someone else would.”

Does he ever think about quitting and doing something else?

“No,” he says. “I’d not be very good at something else.”

But you might be left with no choice, I say. What will he do if, for example, Essex adopts the European Convention on Human Rights?

He laughs and laughs and laughs and then, when he stops, he gets up out of his chair and goes off to do his day’s work.

__________

On Sunday he carries the woman over his shoulder as he climbs up the tight spiral of the stairs in the Goldhangar church tower, and then, at the top he throws her off, much to the delight of the crowd below. Then he trudges back down the stairs (not easy for a man of his size), picks up her whimpering body, and puts her over his shoulder and carries her up again, throws her down again.

This continues for quite some time, until there’s nothing much left for him to hold anymore, nothing much left for him to carry, to throw.

____________

We have one final conversation before I go, in the pretty little garden of a quaint Essex teashop. Looking back on it, I realise I can recall nothing of what we spoke about. Instead, I have a clear image of watching him eating the trayful of cakes the heavily tattooed waitress placed reverently in front of him, “with the full compliments of the village” she said.

The first cake he eats is a slice of Victoria sponge. He separates the two halfs of it, and then scrapes away the cream and jam from the middle with a teaspoon, eating each mouthful with a shudder of pleasure. Then he carves the top half into quarters, the bottom half into fifths, and finally he rolls the pieces one at a time onto the teaspoon and from there into his mouth.

The Swiss roll he unrolls and then slices neatly into one centimetre wide strips, which he dangles down into his mouth from above like a schoolboy eating liquorice shoelaces.

A full-sized kitkat (not technically a cake) he unwraps and eats in two great big bites, not even bothering to snap the thing into fingers.

He eats a strawberry cheesecake through a straw, which unless you’ve seen such a thing done directly in front of your eyes, you’ll never believe to be possible.

With a slice of Battenburg in one hand and a slice of Madeira in the other, he pushes his hands together until the cakes have merged together into a strange paste across his palms, which he then licks at like a cat until they are clean, his tongue working at the webbing between his fingers with a peculiar ferocity.

He dips a scone into a pot of nutella, eats the chocolated scone, and then, with a knife, the rest of the nutella.

He finishes with an entire box of Tunnock’s teacakes. He unwraps each one neatly from the foil, which he flattens down into a square with the back of his hand, taking his time until almost every crease is gone and you’d never know it had once been crumpled up in a ball around the cake. On the foil he places the teacake, each one perfectly centred, until all ten are lined up before him. Then he quickly takes one cake in his right hand and pops it in his mouth, whole, crushes it down with a single chomp of his jaw, and then with his left hand he pops in another, working his way down the line from each end until, a mere matter of seconds later, all the squares of foil are empty and his mouth is full.

Oh is his mouth full.

The tattooed waitress eventually comes back and takes the empty tray away. Something in her demeanour towards David – not to mention the stylised weaponry that adorns her arms, the erotic curves of the Essex seaxes visible beneath the teasingly opened buttons at the neck of her shirt – makes me wonder if she runs the sexycuteoner tumblr, or at least enjoys it as much as I’ve come to. I follow her inside to pay for my coffee, and when we come back out together at the end of her shift David has long gone on his way.

___________

Notes:

1. Written in August 2016
2. I wrote this after reading an article in the New Yorker about some eccentric restaurant owner
3. And really liking the first line of the story
4. Which I stole
5. And used here
6. Please forgive me
7. I was suffering from post-referendum despair
8. And knew not what I was doing
9. Also this would have been an Essex Terror article
10. But Essex Terror was already dead

__________

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Dolerotica

David entered the job centre building and looked around, trying to get his bearings. It had been five years since he’d last been here and everything had subtly changed. Amidst the crowds of people it was hard to see where he was supposed to go for his appointment.

Having located what appeared to be the reception desk a single lectern with a well dressed woman standing beside it, her hand resting on what appeared to be a glossy travel brochure, he made his way through the milling throngs toward it.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you?”

Margaret (36-24-36, with bountiful DD breasts) stood approximately 5 foot nine (two inches of which were her heels) and wore a smart pale blue blouse and a navy blue brushed nylon skirt. Her hair was a lustrous red and tumbled down over her shoulders in waves.

“I’m here to, er.. I’m supposed to sign on, at, er…” David looked at his appointment letter. “…at 9:30.”

Margaret stared at him.

“You’re late,” she hissed.

“But it’s only 9:15,” David said.

“The appointment is at 9:30,” she said, carefully intoning the word appointment so that is sounded almost lewd. “But you have to be here at 9. So as to make sure there’s no delay.”

“Oh, sorry. I, I didn’t realise. It’s my first time,” he said. “Today,” he added, uselessly, into the terror of her silence.

“This was all clearly laid out in your ‘Welcome’ package, along with all the other rules and regulations. It’s part of your agreement with us that you will have read these before arriving for your session.” Margaret looked down at his shoes (a fraying pair of red dunlop tennis shoes that he had bought from Sports Direct for £12.99 the week before, and which gave his overlong feet a strange resemblance to those of a circus clown’s). “And, well, I can see, quite clearly, you didn’t even get to the dress code section.”

“These are the only shoes I’ve got,” David said.

“Indeed.”

Margaret drummed her well-manicured fingers on the top of the lectern, her nails clacking against the lacquer. The book that rested there, David could see clearly now, was entitled “Job Centre Plus: For You, From Us” and on the cover there was a number of well dressed people, all of them beautiful. All of them smiling. David looked away, vaguely embarrassed. He was, he thought, probably frightened of smiles.

When he looked back at Margaret she was holding two red cards out for him to take.

“Your appointment is at lectern #7,” Margaret said, in her clipped, precise tones. “Hand these tokens to your overseer when your name is called, along with your letter of introduction, two forms of photo ID, and a reference from a professional associate, such as your doctor, solicitor, or pastor, or a member of the House of Lords.”

David took the cards from her hand, his finger momentarily grazing hers. It felt smooth, clean, and he jerked his hand away, embarrassed at how his calloused claws must feel to her.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, but she had already turned her attention to another, and his apology went unacknowledged.

At lectern #7, at precisely 7 minutes past ten, David’s name was called and he stepped forward.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you today?”

Margaret, 27 years old, 5 foot 4 inches tall, (26-46-86), cupsize: HH, wore an off-brown cotton shirt above on-brown cullottes that hung just below the knee. He could not see her shoes. Her hair was brown in a style the name of which he did not know, but that he had definitely seen before somewhere.

David handed her his letter, his identification documentation and the two red tokens.

Margaret looked at the red tokens sadly, shaking her head and tutting and sighing simultaneously, somehow.

“Now that’s not a very good start to your claim, is it?”

“What’s wrong?” David asked.

“Two negative actions against your account already. Very disappointing.” She shook her head again, her hair swaying as if in slow motion. “Very disappointing for you.”

“But I haven’t even…” David trailed off as Margaret put her finger to her lips and shushed him.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m here for you.”

She patted him on the arm.

“Now, just tell me your details. Name?”

“David N. Guy.”

“Date of birth?”

“The 16th of June, 1978.”

“Height?”

“153 Conduit Ro-”

Height!

“What?”

“Height.”

“Oh. 6 foot 2.”

“Very good. Weight.”

“I… What does this have to do with… Do I have to tell you this?”

“Yes. It all needs to be filled in. Look!”

She turned her ipad round so he could see the screen. On it there was a picture of him in his underwear. Well a picture of someone in their underwear. It was a sort of indistinct blob mostly. A number of text fields down the side were still waiting to be filled with information.

“I’m about 20 stone.”

“About?”

“20 stone 7.”

“Very good.”

“Bust, hips, waist?”

“I, don’t know. I wear a 44 inch per of trousers usually.”

“I’ll just put, 44, 44, 44 for now, is that okay?”

“I suppose.”

“Cup size.”

“I don’t wear a bra.”

“But if you did?”

David looked down at his shoes and mumbled, “A B cup.”

“See that wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

“No,” David said. “I still don’t really understand why it’s necessary, though.”

“All information is necessary,” Margaret said. “For our records.”

There was a moments silence. David wished he was dead at least three times.

“So it says here,” Margaret said. “That you wish to sign on because you’re a failure of business.”

“My business was a failure,” David said. “The letter says my business was a failure.”

“Do you have the necessary documentation to prove this?”

“Only that letter,” he replied. “I didn’t consider my business a failure.”

“Was it a small business?” Margaret said. “A very small business.”

She held her finger and thumb an inch apart and tittered slightly.

“Anyway,” she continued. “You know the rules.”

“What rules?”

“The rules on the size of a business,” she winked. “Your business was too small.”

“Well, I don’t agree, obviously.” David was shocked by his momentary moment of assertiveness. “But anyway that’s why I’m here. Because my business was too small-”

Margaret interrupted with a giggle.

“-my business was too small to qualify for working tax credits,” David concluded. “And also the new rules state that any business too small for working tax credits is too small to register as a business at all. So they sent me here.”

We.”

“What?”

We sent you here. The Conservatives,” said Margaret. “You’re not a Conservative. So here you are.”

“How do you know I’m not a Conservative?”

“Are you?” she asked.

“No.”

“See. I knew it. Our detection system is foolproof.” She paused a moment and then said in a singsong voice, “We’re the party of workers, not shirkers.” She pointed her crimson-nailed finger directly at David’s heart. “You are a shirker.”

“But I was a worker!”

“A very small worker,” Margaret said. “Barely even profitable.”

She scraped her nails down the screen of her ipad.

“Now, let’s find you a job!”

She clacked at the screen as if she was typing on it, an elaborate and pointless charade on its capacitive screen.

“Well, there’s only one job. You’ll have to have sex with everyone.”

“What?”

“It’s the only job available.”

Everyone?

“Everyone here. It’s the only role available.”

“But… Well, isn’t there anything else?”

“No.”

“Surely there’s a-”

“There’s nothing else.”

“Well, I’m not going to take it.”

Margaret gave him a long hard look and then slowly pushed a red token across the lectern towards him.

“That’s three now. You know what that means.”

“I don’t.”

“It wasn’t a question.”

“I still don’t know what it means.”

“Your account has been suspended, and sanctions placed upon it. You will have to contact your local job centre every Friday to see if they have been lifted. Sanctions usually last from between 4 weeks to 26 weeks. Failure to enquire as to whether your sanction has been lifted is a sanctionable offence. Once the sanctions have been lifted, you may re-apply to the job centre within 28 days to receive an application to apply form, which may take up to six weeks to arrive.”

“But…”

“No ifs, no buts,” Margaret said. “But…” She winked at him, in a sort of sexy way.

“I’m not taking that job,” David said. “It’s against my beliefs.”

We’re the party of florals, not morals,” she sang.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” David said. “It doesn’t even rhyme.”

“It does.”

“It doesn’t.”

“It looks like it does.”

“Well it doesn’t,” David said. “Just listen to yourself saying it.”

Margaret soundlessly pushed another red token across the desk.

“Four,” she mouthed.

“I suppose that means you’ll have me killed now?” David sarcasmed.

“No,” Margaret replied. “It means I’ll have to call my supervisor on you.”

Margaret pressed a button on her desk and a klaxon started blaring and all the light sin the room went red and smoke rose up from the floor and suddenly a supervisor apparitioned out of the murk.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you?” said the supervisor, who was 4 foot 8 tall, with KKK breasts and a cloak made out of ermine. Under that she might well have been naked, or possibly she was wearing a smart black trouser suit from Debenhams.

“Four,” Margaret mouthed at her, and shook her head. The supervisor looked at David, a ferocious fury blazing in her eyes.

“It’s people like you who ruining it for the rest of us,” she said, picking up David’s passport, his driver’s licence, and his signed letter of acknowledgement and approval from Lord Puttnam and ripping them slowly and deliberately into thin strips, each one exactly 0.25 centimetres wide. “We’re the party of citizens, not clucking hens.”

She threw the strips of his identity up into the air and David watched, mesmerised as they fluttered off like paper butterflies across the room, caught oddly in the unpredictable eddies of the air conditioned atmosphere.

“If you want an identity, you’ll have to take this job,” the supervisor said. “Then, you’ll be one of us, a worker not a shirker, and we can assign you a new one. Otherwise, you’re no-one, nameless. Nothing.

A strip of David’s passport fluttered down and landed in the supervisor’s hand. She looked at it and read the name written there. “And you had such a nice name, a Conservative name. A pity.”

She shook her head and vanished back into the smoke.

“Now, you saw that Margaret there wasn’t very happy,” said Margaret. “And you’d like to please her, wouldn’t you? Please her very much. She would… make it worth your while.”

(The salary met precisely all National Living Wage requirements.)

“How come you’re all called Margaret?” David asked, in an attempt to change the subject.

“It is government policy,” Margaret said. “The only women’s name on the list.”

“What list?”

“The list of approved names.”

“So, every woman here is called Margaret?”

“Yes.”

“So she’s called Margaret, is she?” David asked, pointing at the woman working at lectern #64.

“Yes.”

“And her?” he asked, pointing at the woman at lectern #1.

“No, that’s Winston,” Margaret said. “Transgender women are considered men for the purposes of naming. And marriage. And most other rights. In line with government policy.”

“What about her,” David asked, pointing at the short-haired woman working at lectern #846476382. “I know her, and she’s definitely not called Margaret.”

“You’re right, that’s Harold.”

“But she’s not transgender. Her name’s Angela. We used to do some art shows and stuff together.”

“The arts.” Margaret rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. Also, lesbians are now considered men. For the purposes of naming.”

“She’s not even a Conservative,” David insisted.

“She works, therefore she is,” Margaret said.

“What would you call a transgender man?”

“Margaret, obviously.” Margaret said. “Transgender men do not exist, according to government guidelines. And they are forbidden from trying to claim an official designation of lesbian, before you try and think you’ve found a loophole.”

David tried changing the subject again. “So, you’re working for the state. Surely that’s the least bloody Conservative thing you can do. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”

“We’re destroying the system from within,” said Margaret firmly. “So, about this… opening.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You can’t not have it. It’s the rules. Our rules,” Margaret told him. “You have to take a job. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“But I don’t want it,” David said. “I don’t. I can’t. I don’t want to have to have sex!”

The entire job centre fell quiet at this outburst. Margaret looked disgusted.

A bare chested man at the lectern next to them turned round and said, “What the fuck, mate? What sort of fucking gay sort of thing is that? The fucking state of you.” The man turned back to his overseer and said, “This is Essex. We shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of shit round here. It’s disgusting. There’s kids round here.”

David crossed his arms and said, “I’m not taking it. I can’t. I have a phobia.”

“I don’t see any medical exemptions listed on your form.”

“Look, I have a letter, from my Doctor.” David removed it from his trouser pocket and passed it across the lectern to Margaret. “See. Ubbtophobia. A fear of breasts. I can’t possibly take this job. I’d be too scared.”

“I’m sorry, but Ubbtophobia isn’t on our list of medical exemptions,” Margaret said. “The current list of accepted phobias, in line with government policy is as follows: islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, pedophobia, arachnophobia, xenophobia, and taxophobia.”

Margaret put down her ipad and looked at David lasciviously.

“Is it true that, well, the things you’re scared of look bigger to you, when you see them? My sister’s scared of spiders and she’s always saying how huge they are.” She thrust her breasts forward and David drew back, nodding.

“How much bigger?”

David started stammering some fucking nonsense, and she cut him off by saying, “How big do you think my breasts are, David?”

“Don’t. Please, don’t.” David wept.

Margaret pushed her breasts closer to him, closer and closer, until they knocked all the red tokens off the lectern and came perilously close to touching David’s belly and he pushed out with his hands in a panic, as if he thought he could swat them away. But they were too hefty to be moved aside.

“You touched them!” Margaret said. “You touched my breasts.”

She put the ipad down on the lectern and said loudly, to the room, “He touched my breasts.”

The supervisor rematerialised and said, “You touched her breasts.”

“Ubbtophobia my fucking arse, “ said the Margaret from reception. “If you can touch them you can’t be that scared of them.”

The three Margaret’s stood round him in a circle, the Supervisor’s incredible breasts having already knocked the lectern onto the floor. Margaret’s ipad screen shattered as it crashed to the floor.

David tried to turn away but everywhere he looked breasts pushed in towards him. Closer and closer and closer and closer. He screamed.

“Join us,” said Margaret. “Take the job.”

“Become a worker,” said Margaret.

“Become a Conservative!” said the final Margaret. “And never worry about anything again.”

David felt a nipple brush against his beard, and then push further and further in, down into the tangle of it, deeper and deeper until it almost seemed to be inside of him. And then the pressure of it against his skin, the caress of it against his cheek.
_______________

David took the job, and was assigned the name John. He has recently set up a campaign group devoted to the abolishment of the European Convention Of Human Rights. He lives in Chelmsford.

__________

Notes:

1. Written in May 2016
2. Obviously, every word of his is completely true
3. And now, two years later, even more true
4. Although I suppose the list of acceptable female names has now doubled in size

__________

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Trick Or Treat

I’d never been trick or treating before. It wasn’t really a thing when we were kids. Instead of trick or treating you’d just run around in the dark throwing eggs and flour at each other over the park until the park keeper chased you away.

There was nothing more frightening and exhilarating when you were 14 than the beam of the park keeper’s torch sweeping through the trees and all of us scattering away into the night.

So this year, as my 40th birthday treat, we decided to go trick or treating. Proper trick or treating, with costumes and little buckets for the sweets and everything.

The most terrifying thing I could think of was being a teenager again so I was dressed up as myself from 1992: long greasy hair, a ned’s atomic dustbin t-shirt, an awkward straight limbed stance, a neck dotted with shaving cuts, several thousand suicidal thoughts per second.

My sister was dressed up as some sort of cat, and my mother was dressed up as the log lady from twin peaks.

The log lady isn’t frightening, I said to my mother. She said “Well, you can’t hear what the log’s saying.”

“I suppose,” I said, and shrugged in non-agreement agreement.

Cats aren’t frightening, I said to my sister. She scratched at my eyes and bit my throat out and then dragged me back to the house and left me on the doorstep for my father to find.

I didn’t really have an answer for that.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on September 9th, 2018

__________

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Trick Or Treating By Car

Most people seem to have a bunch of Halloween stories if you ask them, odd and unsettling events, all dressed up with dread and portent, urban legends repurposed as their own. A chance meeting with an old friend you find out later died years before, a kindly old lady with suspiciously hairy hands asking you for a lift home, a mysterious something brushing against your arm in the dark, that sort of thing.

Something teetering on the edge of plausibility. Something scary. Or scaryish, at least. Something spooky.

I’ve only got two Halloween stories, and I’m not sure either really fit that description.

The first one is pretty mundane. I made the mistake of going for a walk round here on halloween one time. I was on my own, just out for a stroll, and these arseholes ran past and egged me.

That’s it, that’s the whole story.

But I remember for a second thinking I’d been shot, not just the impact of it as that egg hit me in the stomach, but the sensation of putting my hand to my belly and feeling the wetness there, the sickly thickness of it against my skin. Then I held my hand up to the light and saw it was just a mess of egg, and that initial tremble of fear was overwhelmed by a somewhat tetchy annoyance.

Then came the mocking laughter from the kids as they sprinted away down the road, and my annoyance collapsed in on itself and I was left with nothing but a faint feeling of embarrassment that somehow lingered on for days.

My other halloween story is that last year I went trick or treating by car.

My brother turned up out of the blue in a brand new car. Some sports car. I don’t know what. I hadn’t seen him in months. He sat outside my house and beeped his horn and when I came out to see what was going on he wound down his window and the first thing he said was, “Let’s go trick or treating, Jill. Let’s go trick or treating in a car.”

He smiled. It’d been so long since I’d seen him. I loved that smile sometimes. I loved it now.

“I bet you’ve never been trick or treating in a car before,” he said.

And he was right I hadn’t.

The way he said it, too, as if this mundane idea was actually the absolute height of decadence, something so opulent there’s no conceivable way I could have ever done it before. Imagine it, his voice said through the wound down window, driving around town, demanding sweets from the innocent and the guilty alike. It’ll be glorious.

How could I say no?

In the boot he had two costumes. A wolf costume and a little red riding hood costume. We mixed and matched. I took the little red cloak and the wolf hands, he took the wolf’s head and the wicker basket.

“We’ll never pass as kids,” I said.

“Maybe I’m just a really tall kid,” my brother said, his voice slurred by the mask.

“Yeah right. A really tall kid driving a bloody car!”

“Well, okay, why not just say I’m your dad?” he suggested. “You’re short enough.”

He smiled. I hated that smile sometimes. I hated it then. Wide and knowing and filled with so many teeth.

“Urgh, okay then,” I relented. “I’ll need a mask too, though. Wait a minute.”

I went back inside, and came out wearing a kabuki mask I’d bought for some masquerade ball years and years ago. With the hood pulled up around it I looked suitably terrifying, although, I must say, the hairy hands were probably a bit much. But still, I liked them, and it was Halloween. It was going to be cold as hell tonight.

My brother looked amazing, standing there in his suit and tie, the wolf’s head on, leaning nonchalantly against this flash new car.

It was almost five, dusk already, just getting dark. We got in the car and sped off round the corner.

“Where are we going?” I said, cradling his wolf mask in my lap, running my fingers through its hair.

“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Just around. Wherever takes our fancy.”

He drove out of town first, round the bypass and then back again, getting a feel for his new car, accelerating up through the gears, before eventually we looped back towards the estate where we’d grown up.

He pulled up outside our old house, the one where we’d lived until I was five, till he was seven.

“How about here?” he said, taking his head from my lap and putting it on, placing one smile over another.

An old lady answered the door, almost old enough to be our grandmother, and my brother said, “Trick or treat?” as if he did this every year, as if he really was my father and I really was his little girl, too shy to speak.

While the old lady scuttled off to get us some sweets from the kitchen, I could see my brother leaning his head round the door, trying to get a look at our old hallway, our old stairs. Trying to see if there was anything the same, anything he remembered.

She came back with an apple for each of us, and some kindly words about being careful out there on a night like this. “And aren’t you a sweet little girl,” she said to me. I was too scared to reply and turned and ran back to the car. Behind me I could hear my brother apologising.

“I think she’s a bit scared, she’s only young… And, yes, yes, very tall for her age.”

The next few houses were just… houses. They didn’t seem to hold any special significance that I could see, weren’t the homes of old friends or relatives, as far as I could remember. But at each one they paid out handsomely in sweets, as if our journey was divinely ordained, good luck bestowed upon us by the god of cars, the angels of deceit.

After the fifth house, back in the car, my brother warming his ungloved hands above the heated air vents, he turned to me and said, “That was him. It was really him. Did you see that? It was him.”

“Who?” I said.

Him,” my brother said, before revealing some half-remembered name from our distant past. “Oh god, I used to love him so much. I used to idolise him. He used to be so fucking cool. I can’t believe he still lives at home!”

He laughed loudly through the wolf’s mask for a moment and then, suddenly, shouted, “Oh god I hope his parent’s haven’t died. Maybe he’s inherited their house. Oh god, I don’t know. It could be anything, it could be anything.”

And then, a few minutes later, when we were halfway to the next house, “He used to be perfect!”

None of the next few houses provoked anything like this from my brother, although after one he said, “That was their mum, remember, the twins, I used to go round there all the time. Oh god, she looks exactly the same. Exactly the same. I used to think she was so old, I used to think everyone was so old. But they must have been younger than us, then, younger than we are now.”

It was about eleven when we got to the last house. I only knew it was the last house because my brother whispered, “this is the last one” as we crunched our way up the gravel drive and knocked on the door.

An old man answered. My brother held up our basket, a gingham cloth tucked neatly over the top, as if rather than being filled to the brim with deceitfully gotten sweets we had brought with us a nice picnic we wanted to share.

“Trick or treat,” we said together.

“It’s a bit late, isn’t it,” the old man barked at us. “It’s almost midnight.”

He slammed the door in our faces.

“Nice bloke,” I said.

“Well, he does have a point,” my brother said, looking at his watch.

We were almost back to the car when we heard the door behind us open.

“Here,” the old man said, tossing a chocolate bar in our direction. “Now go to fucking bed.”

And the door slammed again.

“Who was that?” I said. “It’s not the ghost of our father or something is it?”

“No, no,” my brother said, and then wouldn’t say any more.

We drove back to my house, put the fire on, and sat there while our bones tingled from the heat and our skin itched as life slowly returned to it. My brother tipped out the spoils we’d accumulated on the floor between us, a huge mound of sickliness, all the sorts of things I’d never usually eat. We took off our masks and gorged ourselves on it like ravenous animals hunched over a fresh kill.

The power went out at midnight. Even the fire cut out. My brother gave a ridiculously knowing theatrical scream at this sudden descent into darkness, and we both burst out laughing. After the laughter died down, we lapsed into a prolonged contemplative silence. I sat there in the dark, eating sweets from the pile on the floor around me, our phones out in front of us, their screens our candles.

Eventually we tired of keeping our phones awake, of the constant nudging and nurturing they needed to keep their flames from guttering, and we so let them splutter out, let the darkness take back the room.

I tried to scare myself with that old game we’d play as kids on nights like this – this isn’t a sweet it’s an eyeball, this one’s snot, this one’s not a liquorice lace it’s a wiggly worm! – but I think I’m too old to make myself giddy with squeamishness now. And in any case, it doesn’t really work when they’re your sweets, when you already know what they’re not, even if you’re not exactly sure what they are until you pop them in your mouth and bite them in half.

The church bells chimed one o’clock. I listened to my brother’s breathing in the dark, the ragged breaths that implied unseen tears. A chill went through me, and just as I was about to ask if he was okay he said, “I’m dying, Jill. I’m so sorry, I’m… It’s cancer, Jill. It’s cancer and I’m dying.”

I felt it like a knife to the heart. Like a bullet to the belly.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. What can you say? What should you say? I still don’t know what to say and I still wish I’d said whatever it is I needed to say then but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t and I didn’t and I should have. I should have known and I should have said and

and

and and and

In the dark, in the silence, that seething horrible silence, I reached out to hold my brother’s hand. And as my furry wolf-gloved palm clasped his own, he let out a piercing shriek of unabashed terror and scrambled away across the room in the dark, a stark fucking howl of anguish and horror and christ knows what that broke my heart forever.

“Oh, christ, Jack, it’s just me,” I said. “It’s just me. It was just these stupid fucking wolf hands, these stupid fucking gloves.”

And for a moment then I wanted the silence back, wanted the silence of my failure and the dark of my heart to swallow me whole and never let me go, never have to let me show my face again, never have to let me live with the shame and the embarrassment and the grief, O god the grief.

But then the words came. I took the gloves off and held his hand in my own and the words poured out, poured out of both of us there in the dark, the words and the tears and every last remnant of our hearts.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on the 14th of September, 2018

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There are maps of our memories, there are paths within our dreams

Chapter 1

how did I get here how did I get here how did I get here how did I get here how did I get here how did I get here how did I get here how didi i get ehere how did i egt here how did ieget howdherit ehre

***

suffocating, screaming, pleading make it stop make it stop make it stop but it never stops

the pressure and the pain
building
until it feels
like I’m going to burst

as i die i wake

***

Sometimes I wonder if the only paths that exist are the ones that I have walked down. If it is the mind that makes them real.

***

I am where I am supposed to be, at the address they gave me. There’s nothing here apart from a row of condemned houses, the windows boarded up, the drainpipes and the streetlamps all coated in an undrying paint to deter you from climbing

breaking

entering

***

I find a dead bird in my garden. A sparrow, or a starling, maybe.

I’m not sure of the difference.

Its head is turned to one side, a single droplet of blood ready to burst in its slightly open beak, and its chest has been ripped open. Whatever was once inside has gone.

***

I spend the afternoon writing the report. I tell them what I saw.

I have no idea if it is what they want to hear.

I am never given any indication, of anything. Whatever I tell them, the pay is always the same. Sometimes I have to wait longer for the money to come, and with it the next address.

I cannot tell if this is a judgement on what I say.

***

A dog is barking at me, straining on its leash, lips curled back in a snarl that reveals all of its teeth. Its owner holds him back, feet planted wide, both hands holding grimly onto the leash.

A fisherman at sea in the middle of a storm.

I watch the dog, its powerful jaws, its hate and desire, wishing that the lead would slip through the man’s fingers and the beast would be free to leap at me, its jaws biting my wrist, grinding their way through to the bone as I try to hold it off. The ligaments sever in my arm, my hand goes limp. The dog knocks me to the floor and goes for the throat.

I never scream or cry. Calm acceptance, no fighting, no attempts at escape. Everything soundless, slow, beautiful.

I see myself from above. The blood spreads around me as if I’m giving birth.

***

I post the report and come straight home. I lock the door, close the curtains, sleep before the sun even begins to set.

***

In my dreams it is a city. The streets are more tightly packed, the buildings sometimes older. The river is gone, replaced by a plain that stretches off beyond the High Street.

There is a castle, and passages beneath it, narrow cobbled paths spiralling in on themselves.

There are streets I do not know.

There are hills and there are holes.

The core stays the same, the familiar still there within the expanded whole. At the frayed edges of my memory I know it all, every street and every turn, but only after, when I awake. While I’m there I’m either lost or oblivious.

And always alone.

***

A new letter, containing:

a new address (in the town in which I live)
five ten pound notes
a return address (in a town I do not know)

Everything is always different. Everything is always the same.

***

I walk along streets I’ve walked a million times before, alleyways and pathways, fields, abandoned gardens, car parks. I count the cats I pass, the broken windows, the bent and dented streetlights, the crushed concrete bollards held together only by their twisted metal spines. I wonder what it would be like to hold a sickle to my throat, the curve of its blade a perfect fit against my neck. I pull it quickly across, a single rotation that cuts a thin smooth line all the way around. Blood flares out. I fall to my knees.

***

The address leads me to what is little more than an empty garage, its doorway rolled halfway up when I arrive.

There is nobody here.

An old mattress is leaning up against the back wall, oil stained and damp with a faint covering of mould. An extension lead marks out a trail across the floor, ending violently in the centre of the room, the plug severed, bare wires splayed out like veins. They point towards a solid lump of refined bitumen, a dark crystal, complex and angular, waiting to melt.

It looks soft, liquid, and I can scarcely believe it is not. I place my hand on it to test its solidity, half expecting my fingers to slip into it, like bones dropped in tar.

I dream of their eventual fossilisation, excavation, discovery, museum display.

***

I am lost in streets I do not know. Leaves pile up in drifts along the pavements, concealing the kerbs as they spread out towards the middle of the road. There are no cars to disturb their slow progress. No people to kick them apart.

Above me a moon as bright as the sun.

***

My bedroom is cold. My sheets feel damp, as do my clothes as I put them on. Later, as I walk to the postbox, the low sun strobes through the railings into my eyes.

I imagine it triggering an epileptic fit. I drop to the ground, my body convulsing freely in the loneliness of the street. No one comes to help. My letter slips away in the breeze, a final ponderous butterfly before the end of the year.

***

The post arrives with a new address. I do not know what day it is.

***

Snow outside. Deep, silent. The everyday boundaries of the town obliterated by its spread. Garden indistinguishable from pavement, pavement from road, road from field.

Without these lines
I feel lost
every step
a
possible
transgression
from the public
into the private.

***

The address is a road I do not recognise. Its position on my various maps is inconsistent, sometimes absent. The sun sets and I have still not found it.

***

I look at my footprints in the snow. The journey lines I trace out on my maps every evening are here made physical, echoes of my movement, my speed and my weight. The further back they go the harder it is to discern which are mine and which are not. My past lost in a confusion of information.

***

I slip and fall and land heavily on my back. The snow surrounds me, holds me in a thick embrace.

I can see the moon, a delicate sliver of crystal beyond the frozen sky.

My breath rises up towards it.

I can feel the warmth seeping out of me, down into the snow, into the earth.

I make no attempt to move.

***

Chapter 2

A map is not just a representation of space but of time as well. The date is as important as the names. Without both you will never find your way.

***

He kept searching. He kept walking. At night he would study his maps, again and again. Occasionally he would absentmindedly give his globe a spin and watch the world rotate before him. He imagined himself a traveller on the static surface of the moon, looking always at the ever moving earth above.

***

He can watch the town grow by looking at his maps in chronological order. Between the earliest ones there are the greatest gaps in date, sometimes over a century or more, and there are vast disparities in the methods of representation. But despite this he feels he can see the town as it was, barely changing from century to century, a few houses here, a church or two, roads and farms that probably date back even further, pre-Roman, pre-pre-Roman. A thousand years of gradual change in a handful of images.

The maps get more accurate as time passes, but more homogenous. They become more frequent, and yet with this decrease in the periods between them the rate of change accelerates, as if each map must contain a certain amount of new data, the publication of the new map forcing the changes, rather than the other way round.

New roads appear, new buildings, canals.

The railway comes.

The river becomes a constant, instead of a snake twisting slowly across the landscape, across time. Eventually the sea is reclaimed, first as marshland, then eventually as farmland. The town expands, contracts briefly between the wars, expands on and on.

Through it all some things stay the same. The roads into and out of the town (one north, crossing the river where it narrows invitingly; one east, which follows the river towards the sea; one west, towards the city; two south, not towards but from the villages there) seem fixed. The churches, once they appear, do not move.

The school itself has not moved for 400 years, but it does grow, keeping pace with the town, while simultaneously the fields around it shrink, a constant creep of houses encroaching across the borders.

The railway goes.

***

He has other maps. A series of detailed layouts of the High Street, each shop marked with its occupant, in ten year increments from just after the war to a few years ago, the final map showing a sudden increase in units marked “vacant”. He has plans of the park, from its construction in the 19th century through various renovations and re-landscapings over the century or more since.

There are charts of farm boundaries, boat moorings. Power cables, phone lines. The drainage network, where over the years you can see the old brooks and streams get pulled into it, eventually being buried beneath new houses and new roads, the town slowly forgetting they were ever there.

Public footpaths,
ancient roadways,
bridleways,
cattle lanes.

Tiny badly-labelled maps from flyers showing the directions to Indian takeaways, kebab shops, out of town furniture warehouses, local museums, boot sales, school fetes, birthday parties. Routes of fun runs, cycle races, summer carnivals, remembrance parades, fundraising santa sleigh-rides.

He kept photos — his own and those of others — organised by location and then date, so you could see the slowly changing faces of the town, its buildings and its people. He took photos too of old paintings of old places. There were printouts of each new iteration of the aerial photographs on google maps, and even the entire town at street level (in black and white, to save on ink).

***

Each day he traced out where he had walked during the day on a sheet of acetate. He marked his route in a blue marker, homes and shops entered were marked with red numbers, and the full details listed at the empty edges of the sheet.

He kept these sheets clipped together, grouped a week at a time, the build-up of routes slowly obliterating from view the map fixed beneath as the days and the overlays stacked up.

He aimed each week to walk every road of the town. He could, if he wished, see where he had gone on any given day from the last seven years. If he had laid them all down together the sheets would reach the ceiling.

An ice core representing almost a fifth of his life, and encompassing the entirety of the town.

***

Even with all this he could not find the place he had been tasked to find. Maddeningly, the name cropped up from time to time, map to map, but nowhere consistently. Sometimes it was the provisional name of a road on a new estate that by the next map had been renamed. Later a shop, from before he was born, the proprietor’s name on an old advertisement. The name of an old house long since demolished.

He could find places which contained part of the name, places which were phonetically similar. He walked to every one, and what he wanted was not there.

***

His favourite map was one depicting the Friars’ Path, the old route between the friary in the centre of the town and the abbey just north of the river. The map showed the abbey and the friary separated by the sweep of the river. It showed no other buildings, although a small line marked the bridge across the river. It was not aligned along the north/south axis, but instead had the abbey at the bottom of the page and the friary at the top. The winding path of the river was shown as a straight (but tapering) line, its widest point at the top left hand corner, narrowing down to a tiny sliver as it crossed the page towards the bottom right corner of the map.

The route was marked out in green. It started at the friary, crossed the river at the bridge, and then made its way to the abbey at the bottom of the sheet. But the path was not straight. Between the friary and the bridge, and then again between the bridge and the abbey, the path swerved left and right seemingly without reason, back and forth across the emptiness of the page, as if a length of cotton had been thrown onto the map and left to lay where it fell.

The map revealed a path through a labyrinth without depicting the labyrinth itself. Of the old roads that the friars walked and the obstructions they avoided, there was no trace.

The map as echo.

***

He printed out a new copy of the town map, this time making the width of the page match the circumference of his globe. He took the globe out of its stand and wrapped the map around the equator, so that the east road out of town met the west road. He cut the top and the bottom half of the map into ribbons and folded them down towards the poles. As the strips of the map overlapped each other they formed new networks of roads,
new paths,
a new town.

The river formed a sea that stretched across a third of the northern hemisphere and covered the pole. Fields and gardens were lost in the south, creating an endless tangle of housing estates that formed a tight maze of streets as dense as a thornbush. The two roads that led out of the town to the south formed a loop that surrounded and contained the new maze.

The remains of the ancient wall near the site of the old friary, which previously marked out a large U shape, now formed an equilateral triangle that entirely sectioned off the old ruins, protecting or perhaps imprisoning them within its boundary.

***

He taped the edges of the map down and looked at this tiny new world. His house still existed, but now he had new neighbours. His garden was gone, and the field behind it.

There, at the centre, where the two edges met and the east road bled back into the west. The two truncated names merged to form the address he had been looking for.

***

It was late, and the town was empty. The sky was clear above, the stars bright in the freezing winter air. Frost crunched under his boots, and he walked slowly so as not to slip. He went to the west road because it was marginally nearer.

***

He looked at his globe. This was the point. It looked no different from usual, the road stretching away in a straight line towards both horizons. The frosted tarmac a white scar in the dark.

He closed his eyes and stepped across the threshold.

***

Chapter 3

__________

Notes:

1. The original version of the was written between November 2010 and November 2013
2. And this final edit was made in April 2016
3. This also has the same final sentence as The Three Doors And The Fourth
4. I’m not sure what this means
5. But anyway that’s why I have posted both of these today

__________

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