A short story I wrote in 2016 after a hiatus of a few years. It felt good to get back into the creative groove!
The All-Seeing I
You are never alone. Next time you take a sneaky pluck at your nose or snaffle that tenner on the pavement, justifying to yourself that the dropper “looked rich anyway,” just remember, there is always someone watching. I am always watching.
“Letter for you, Doug.” Kerry hands her husband the small white rectangle and hovers behind his shoulder, her curiosity as pungent as a teenager’s first experiment with aftershave. He slowly slides a finger under the sticky fold, knowing that she will never give herself away by asking him to hurry. Instead she busies herself clearing the breakfast things, clanking them loudly as she scoops up greasy plates and smudged mugs, desperate to know who the letter is from and why it’s only addressed to him. They are married – a partnership. Surely any invitation should have her name on too. They still haven’t heard back from his niece and it had been a lovely gift she had sent; any other young girl setting up home would have adored the M&S vouchers. University, Doug had scoffed. Why would an eighteen year old need vouchers for that? She still bristles at the memory.
Now Kerry lingers in the doorway, watching her husband as he leisurely extracts a slim slice of paper and unfolds it, not glancing up at her once. He knows that she’s watching and subsequently takes longer: a little game he likes to play. A little game he never loses. When did they become like this? It’s been so long since she called him Dougie.
“It’s an invite.”
“To what?” Her voice is like a tape measure snapping back to place: one of the ones that retracts so sharply it traps fingers and makes you wince.
“I… er… it’s… a wedding reception. Bloke from work.”
“Great,” Kerry remarks with a sting and brisks out of the room.
Dougie stares back down at the piece of paper. We are delighted to confirm your audition for All About the Music. This is it: his chance to do something for himself and be Dougie Dallachy – just him, his guitar and a few million viewers. To be watched as opposed to watcher. To smile again.
His luck is in tonight: “Dave” and “Anna” are back on screen three. Dougie had thought it was sweet the first time he saw them two years ago – giggly as your granny after a sherry, covert looks over their shoulders as they sipped from steaming flasks before quickly getting down to business in the back of the car.
It was only afterwards, the thick shell of a wedding band gleaming a grainy white onscreen, that it occurred to him there could be only one reason for their visit that evening. He had been new to it all at that point: he hadn't experienced the darkness. Like the first time he'd spotted the little candles nestled in between the piles of bitter-smelling and crusted cans piled high in the bushes on one of their “site clear-up” days, (another idea from some bright spark in Management who thought the lads could “do their bit.” Next they'll be asking them to wipe bums –like they don't already see enough of the arse-end of society!)
“At least the kids are having a bit of romance, eh?” he'd nudged Eddie, who had turned to him incredulously.
“If you think using a candle to light your drugs is romantic, sure. I think I'll stick to flowers and chocolates if I'm honest, mate – ha!” It was the “ha” that really got him; sometimes even now he hears it in his dreams.
There's no Eddie or anyone else here with him tonight, although they're technically supposed to work in pairs. Cutbacks, they say. Always cutbacks. Funny how “making savings” doesn’t seem to apply to Big Jim's annual bonus, keeping him in bourbon and his wife in botox for another year. No, they aren’t supposed to know about that but they are, after all, paid to watch for a living. Not that Jim is so big these days – in the clutch of illness he has become as withered and wrinkled as an over-washed sheet.
He doesn't mind being on his own. When the darkness comes; when the tight fingers of rage begin to clench at his throat and he struggles to breathe, it's better to be alone. Even Kerry doesn't know – even back when they used to talk he couldn't bring himself to tell her how angry the job was making him. How it was making him doubt himself even; his family. Because the characters he comes across during his shifts: the druggies, the prostitutes, the fighters, Dave and Anna... presumably they have families. They are something to someone away from all of this – not just an image on a camera screen. Not just a night watchman's entertainment. They are all someone's son or daughter; someone's mother. And if they can be involved in all of this, then surely so can anyone. He can no longer trust anyone. He isn't sure Kerry would have understood if he had opened up anyway.
You should take a paper or something, he remembers her saying that first night as he laced up his boots, eager and innocent as a kitten. You'll be bored witless otherwise waiting for something to happen. If only they had known. Three years into the job it's too late to say anything: he barely even speaks at home these days anyway.
His two performers are mid-act now – he snatches a bite of chocolate and leans back a little in his battered chair, eyes trained on the screen. Over the last few months their visits have become much more sporadic.
He imagines two children sneaking back to the sweet trolley for more goodies – unable to resist that final splurge despite promising not to. More than once he has wondered who they really are – what their real names are, who they are in the day. How they know one another. If it's all worth it for twenty minutes crunched up in the back of a car every few weeks. More than once he has wanted to take a photo and put it on social media – Cheating couple caught out by watchman: see the photos here! It would never work, though; in the beginning he pressed his red button a couple of times only to be actually scolded – taken straight back to his schooldays – by the two police officers who eventually arrived.
“Look I've got real crimes to be solving – don't press that button again unless it's an emergency.”
“But that guy... he...”
“I don't care what he did – I'm not interested in yet another user getting beaten up because he can't pay his debts. We've got half the squad out looking for that little boy from Piton – that's real work. This? This is nothing.”
“Don't press it again. Do you hear me?”
Then what was the point of having the button? A direct line to the police – there for your safety. A big Eddie “ha” to that – he has never pressed it again. Kerry would be shocked if she knew the extent of his job – the utter relentlessness of it: the night after soul-destroying night of watching the most abhorrent of behaviour and knowing there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. He is being driven mad with the horror of it all.
His focus returns to the couple. Do they really think no one can see them? It's crazy – if there is only one thing the last three years have taught him it's that there is no such thing as a hiding place. Although he doesn't mind Dave and Anna as much as some of the others. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king: in the wasteland of the night watch an affair is hardly a sin. In fact, in a funny way they have become his favourite regulars. He quite likes to watch.
“Are you working tonight?”
“Right – meal for one again it is, then.”
“You'll be watching Corrie in your PJs – you love it.” Dougie hasn't used this voice with her for so long: his wife is girlish as she smiles up at him, twirling a foot.
“Maybe. I might paint my nails. I'll try and wait up for you if you want.”
He makes a decision: he will tell her about his audition. They can get excited together then – plan his song choice: his outfit even. He needs to retune his guitar, perhaps have a haircut. The words rise to the surface then hover and stall. She doesn't even know he applied in the first place – how is she going to react? He realises how much he needs her to want this for him – for them. This – this is everything. It can't be hers yet: he just isn't ready.
“I've got to go.”
“Oh.” She is visibly upset at the abrupt change in temperature but quickly rights herself, swiping the pile of crumpled magazines from the coffee table with a hand only shaky to the most observant of watchers. “Right you are.”
“I'll see you tomorrow.”
He resists the urge to drive his knuckles through the door and instead slides his guitar out from under the sofa, hefting it over his shoulder. Maybe he can make something of tonight.
He actually hears them before he sees them – they are firmly in the vicinity. He leans the guitar against the wall and breathes. There's an unusual and uncharacteristic in-joke: “Fancy meeting you here tonight!” and then it becomes too quiet for him to hear the rest. He longs for Dave and Anna; even for “Gisele” and her queue of merry men. He has been here long enough to know that her real name is Georgina and she wants to be a psychologist. This “job” is just an interim thing until she has enough to pay her student fees – yet she's been doing it for seven years. Perhaps less interim and more long-term – he tries not to think about it. Has been vaguely tempted himself on occasion – the very thought of it like bile in his throat; quickly swallowed for now. But yes, anything but this: tonight he cannot handle the darkness. Kerry will be in bed now – he could just leave and join her. Claim to Jim that he'd had a dodgy takeaway earlier; he certainly wouldn't be the first or last to do it. He could even walk out; never go back. Tell them he's going to be famous – he's going places and he has no need for any of this. He doesn't want to watch anymore.
The big white bags are out now and exchanges are being made – it's all too familiar. Dougie creaks the door open slightly and peers through the gap, the desire for vengeance pressing deeply on his chest. They can't get away with it. They aren't regulars – he has never seen them before. New blood. He aches with the injustice of it.
“Oi!” Somehow he is outside, his boots spitting gravel as he runs towards the men.
“Wha...?” He is upon one of them and then there is screaming and fluid and soft splitting flesh and the world is ending.
“Stop! Please stop!”
“Please! We're not doing anything wrong – you've got it wrong!”
It is only when he is sated – when the darkness has subsided – and he comes to that he sees what the bags are for. The man who has been pleading with him cradles his broken friend.
“See?” the man splutters. “We look after the Food Bank – we wanted to do the exchange in private. We just wanted to do something good.”
Upstairs the forgotten guitar gives up – slides down the wall and rattles against the dirty floor. The bereft instrument will be “that picture” on the front pages tomorrow: the one everyone is talking about. And now, as the sirens blare into earshot – apparently this really is an “emergency” – it it far from lost on Dougie that there is a distinct similarity between their discordant peals and the opening credits of All About the Music. As he waits for the inevitable, he is unaware of the camera. There is always someone watching.
This novel started as one of my many strange, film-like dreams - I started writing it back in 2012 and it is the first novel I have ever written in different parts but the arrival of my little boy sent it to the back burner for a while. I am still super excited about it and now I have more time to write I intend on setting a date to finish it!
The Villagers (a short extract)
I suppose that journalist wasn't so far off the mark with her comment. These rioters, like my Villagers, are only thinking of “me, here, now.” They are at this moment incapable of placing themselves outside of this; of imagining the knock at the door tomorrow morning, or the weeping shop-owner despairing at a destroyed life. But I see it all the time now: people in a soulless coffee bar socialising but not. Plugged into iPhones or MP3 players and in their own, emotionally uninhabited worlds. They don't notice the elderly lady hunched at a table eagerly trying to make eye contact with someone: anyone, in order to strike up a conversation and light up her otherwise lonely day. They barely acknowledge the waitress, who is herself distant and disconnected – itching to check Facebook as she distractedly clatters mugs.
I have been writing and rewriting various versions of this novel since I was a teenager - thankfully it has evolved quite a lot since then! I fully intend to finish it in the next year or so - I really feel that having been so long in the making, the story needs to be told...
Behind the Mirror (a short extract)
“Mark, let’s tell someone about Marie. Then…” A high-pitched noise escaped her as he pulled her onto the floor by legs smattered with goose pimples and she struggled against him.
“Who’d listen?” he asked scornfully. How the hell am I going to explain my nose to Melissa?
“Then I’ll phone someone… I’ll phone Childline.” A familiar threat.
“No you won’t.” She yapped and squealed like a little terrier as he dragged her by the hair across the room, hauling her up against the wall. Her head cracked against the Degas painting hung fondly by Marie years before and she was awkwardly reminded of Melissa in the toilets.
“Ok… ok… I… won’t,” she wheezed. He let go of her and stalked towards the door, throwing over his shoulder: “Keep searching for your fucking happy Childline ending.”
Her world was suddenly very small and empty; the dull dimness creeping into and settling in the room as darkness fell outside, the intermittent flickering of a muted television in the corner, the distant hum of the tumble dryer and the absolute, eerie stillness surrounding her. It was Friday evening and she felt utterly alone.
Upstairs, a bath fizzling and bubbling merrily beside her, Shannon stared moodily into the unyielding, uncompromising mirror at an imperfect reflection. Can’t ever get mascara right; her left eye was smudged like an amateur charcoal drawing and she angrily rubbed at it with a colourless flannel.
“Stupid, ugly cow!” She clenched her fists and scanned the warm, steamy bathroom, desperately needing to expel the rage burning inside.
She clicked open the little cabinet above the mirror, making sure that the catch pressed a sore dent into her thumb, and yanked out the slim silver scissors Marie used to trim her hair. She tore them apart and ground one of the points against her wrist, wincing at the first sting of pain: the first dots of scarlet liquid that escaped from the opened skin. The anger didn’t subside as a trickle of blood ran down a pale arm; she grabbed a handful of hair and snapped the scissors closed again and again, hacking in vain at the long strands until she had no energy left even to cry. Behind the broken, bleeding figure huddled on the floor, the bath continued to fill.