Gordon Robertson: Clean

It was during his fourth Christmas that Kelvin Bryce came to realise the true meaning of life. The memory was fuzzy, and of course no one in the family ever mentioned it again, but Kelvin had convinced himself it had been Christmas Eve, and that everyone had been gathered around the television when his mum and dad had traded horse slaps over some long-forgotten grievance. His sister Hannah, an impressionable six, had burst into an instant flood of tears and promptly declared it the worst Christmas ever. The baby, Jake, woken from his Moses basket in the corner and now shrieking in solidarity with his older sister had, if anything, outdone her in terms of volume. This chorus of youthful despair amid the sharp sting of adult blows imprinted an indelible thought upon the young Kelvin’s mind; a thought that would inform the next forty years of his development: first, do no harm.

‘First, do no harm’. A noble conceit, albeit one almost impossible to live up to. And yet Kelvin tried, and his attempts to pull off this miracle bullet-pointed his life. In chronological order, he:

  • backed off from tackles during Boy’s Brigade football matches
  • sat on the fence during high school debates
  • tempered criticism with praise as a university lecturer
  • refused to date women as a matter not of choice, but of principle

Kelvin just couldn’t run the risk of hurting someone else, or of bringing children into the world purely to hurt them too, as he inevitably would – as we all do – through no fault of his own. He felt himself a conduit for the baseness of life; a conductor of negativity. By removing from this equation all recipients of such negativity – a wife, a child, a life – he removed blame. He removed guilt. By doing no harm, he ultimately did no good.

Inevitably, harm would slip through Kelvin’s cracks. A word, or a behaviour, taken the wrong way and then used against him, had all the power of a nuclear device, and the resultant fallout would send Kelvin spiralling downwards into some inner bunker of blackness, from which he could never emerge clean. Kelvin’s guilt, ingrained like dirt, would never feel fully washed away.

Ironically, it was another Christmas, forty years after the trauma and theatre of the last, that forced Kelvin to view life in a radically new way. He’d ordered a Chinese takeaway on Christmas Eve, planning to put it in the freezer overnight and reheat it the next day. Hannah and the kids had wanted him to spend the holidays with them – his nephew and niece viewed him as an unpredictable, but lovable, eccentric – but Kelvin had baulked at the air fare. The difference in cost between flying to Germany at the beginning of December and flying on Christmas Eve was eye-watering. And there was no way he could justify the increase in his carbon footprint. No, Kelvin would spend Christmas at home this year, as he did every year, alone with a takeaway. No harm in that.

When the meal arrived, it was wrong. He’d asked for lemon chicken in a sweet and sour sauce, and what he’d got was sweet and sour chicken in a lemon sauce. He was already irritated. An earlier Skype call from his brother Jake’s ex-wife Tonia had quickly descended into recriminations and tears. If only Kelvin had lent Jake the money he’d needed for his new start-up then Jake would never have had to get the money ‘elsewhere’; ‘elsewhere’ always spoken of in loud, accusatory speech-marks. And of course, had Kelvin lent Jake the money then there would have been no need for either bailiffs or broken legs. Or bankruptcy. And certainly no need for an acrimonious divorce. But Kelvin hadn’t wanted to get involved. The venture was risky in theory – personalised leisure-wear; really? – and would have proved more so in practice. Lending Jake the money would only have further encouraged his brother’s madness. He didn’t want to risk that. And the divorce wasn’t his fault, dammit! That was all down to Jake and Tonia. So why did he feel that it was?

And so Kelvin wasn’t in the best of moods when his meal arrived. He proceeded to chew out the delivery boy, regretting it as soon as the words hit the youth. He wanted to apologise, but the boy beat him to it, promising a replacement within the next half hour. He’d turned and ran back down the path to his car before Kelvin could say anything to soothe the boy. A heavy feeling of shame hid in Kelvin’s stomach for the remainder of the evening.

It was while he was in the shower the following morning – a bright, beautifully crisp Christmas Day morning – that Kelvin experienced something extraordinary. As he washed, he felt, deep within his chest – and deeper, down within the very calcium of his bones – the heat of angry words being spat at him. He felt their bile, he felt their hurt; a spear-tip of hate stabbing him repeatedly. He doubled up, clutching his stomach, his moans barely audible above the roar of the shower. A sudden contracting of the gut – as though he’d been sucker-punched – overtook Kelvin and his right arm shot out, hoping for purchase, but succeeding only in taking him, sliding, to the floor, where he lay, coughing and spitting up phlegm, as a hot stream of shower water threatened to drown him.

And then, incredibly, he felt it all go. The stabbing pain burst first, like a balloon in his lower intestine, shooting its way out through pores and extremities. The anger and hurt fled next, an exodus of emotion. Lastly, guilt dissolved like sugar in tea and he at once felt renewed, invigorated, cleansed; a new man, freed of all responsibility. What is this, Kelvin asked himself in stunned wonder? What the fuck just happened?

For the rest of the day, Kelvin interrogated his inner self with all the tenacity of a Scotland Yard detective. How did he feel? Why did he feel? Why was there no longer that sense of being responsible for everything? Of always having to watch what he said, what he did, where he went, who he interacted with, for fear of causing harm, offence, hurt? Was this the real Kelvin, come out to play in the sunlight of his maturing years? He’d clearly gone through some revitalising, cathartic experience, but what? And how? And why?

The following days allowed the questions to subside; to take their place alongside life’s daily struggle. Only it no longer felt like a struggle to Kelvin. It felt more like … victory. As though he’d broken free of chains of someone else’s making and replaced them with a pair of the softest gloves. In fact, his whole body – inner and outer – felt encased in softness, like a sheath of clouds. For the first time in his life, Kelvin felt … in control.

Spring arrived, and with it a kind of rebirth. A skin was shed, and Kelvin grew into a more social animal. Drinks with friends became drinks with members of the opposite sex, and before long Kelvin had a girlfriend. Marie was five years younger, still reeling from a long engagement with a solicitor who had promised her the world, but delivered only the news that he’d gotten his ex-girlfriend pregnant the month before. Vulnerable and raw, she’d nonetheless taken Kelvin up on his offer of a meal at a new pop-up restaurant in Edinburgh. They met on a Monday, and became lovers that same night.

Within the week, Kelvin knew he’d chosen badly. Marie bored him. Her constant talk of office politics – a tax office, of all places; for Christ sake! – had him salivating over kitchen knives, whilst her preference for reality television had him doubting her sanity. He told her all this on the Sunday evening over a warm Rogan josh, and the tears weren’t long in coming. Kelvin felt nothing, bar a mild embarrassment at the thin whining of a woman on the cusp of forty weeping into a bowl of basmati rice. He was secretly glad when she grabbed her coat and left. He’d always felt that a single plate of Rogan josh was never quite enough.

The next morning, in the shower, the stabbing pains returned, accompanied by a horrible, heart-shredding sense of isolation and abandonment. Kelvin found himself weeping just as Marie had the night before; a well of cruel hurt that leaked from him like state secrets. All the sadnesses of his life congealed in his bowels and brought him, once more, to his knees, where he spluttered out an apology to an absent lover that was lost to the rasp of the water broiling his skin.

And then, as abruptly as it began, the pain withdrew. The tears dried and guilt fled the scene. It felt like a baptism of sorts. Kelvin’s sins had been washed clean. It was difficult for him not to think of the shower cubicle as a substitute confessional. He was in no way religious, but the power of the analogy was not lost on him. He emerged from its steam cleansed and relieved, his body a firework of neurons. The train of his life had just negotiated a tricksy bend, but it was straight track now from here on in.

But it’s never that simple, is it? Life rarely is. The more Kelvin fought to keep his sins clean, the more he felt compelled to dirty them. Something had hacked into the computer of his mind and deleted his adopted mantra. The concept of ‘First, do no harm’ no longer felt like a default position to Kelvin. Rather, it was more the ghost of a once-great, but now discredited, idea; praised and propagandised, but ultimately dismissed as irrelevant. And so each bout of hurt caused – intentionally or not – was delivered back to Kelvin ten-fold, its intensity exaggerated for maximum impact, its pain stretching his tolerance beyond endurance. Something had to give. He knew this wasn’t normal.

And so an insidious brand of paranoia crept into Kelvin’s life. Quietly, unobtrusively, it took up permanent residence within the mush of his cerebral cortex, because reasons had to be found for what was happening to him, and they weren’t going to be found amongst the rational of the everyday. These were extraordinary times. They called for extraordinary justifications and rationalisations, the very least of which was demonic possession. The whole thing smacked of voodoo. Somewhere there was a doll with his face on it, peppered with pins. He was sure of it. What else could explain the physicality of what he was enduring? The thought took over his waking day and the fitful hours of his night. He’d dream, irrationally, of fire and death and hell-hot pools of molten liquid dragging him to his doom. More often than not, he’d dream of his mother and father, risen from the dead and gathered by his bedside, taking turns to silently smash down on him the broken slabs of their own faded headstones.

And then one night, through the smog of reason, floated a thought so perfect, so crystalline and diamond-tipped in its simplicity, that Kelvin would have scolded himself for not having thought of it before had he not been so euphoric at its discovery. It was the shower. Of course! The shower was cursed! It all made perfect sense. After all, when had he got it? The week before Christmas. Mere days before the attacks had begun. Buoyed by the thought of money saved by not flying to Dusseldorf, Kelvin had chosen to treat himself to a new shower. He’d lived in the flat for eleven years without one, but hey, why the fuck not? And so he’d thumbed through the local paper and found a small company – in reality, just a single guy: Russell – that specialised in cheap bathrooms and showers. Thinking back, he’d been suspicious of Russell from the off. For a start, he had that annoying way of leaning over the counter to talk to you. That wasn’t right. Then there was the hint of an Eastern European accent. Kelvin was in no way racist, but that accent didn’t sit comfortably with him. And as for that beard! Jesus Christ, did they not have razors where he came from?

But why had he put a curse on the shower? The more Kelvin thought about it, the more he drew a blank. Where was the man’s motive? And then it hit him: the money! What else could it have been? Even at the time, he’d been suspicious of Russell’s insistence that the transaction be made in cash. The man had grown visibly agitated as soon as Kelvin had proposed paying by credit card, but it was all Kelvin had on him. Russell had bitten his lip and dragged his thin fingers through his thick beard before suggesting that Kelvin go to the cashpoint – now – and withdraw money. Equally insistent on getting his own way, Kelvin had refused. He wasn’t going to go away and come back – a good half-hour round trip, and that was him being conservative – when he was standing right there with the card in his hand. Flashing it in Russell’s face, he’d announced that if the bearded little fuck (he didn’t actually say that part out loud) didn’t take it, Kelvin would walk. Russell had taken it, but it had been clearly grudged. Kelvin suspected the man to be unhinged and, given his Eastern European extraction, possibly Romany, with all that that entailed. Hence the curse. Obviously.

Kelvin still had the newspaper from Christmas – or rather that part of the newspaper with the shop details on it – and found Russell’s number. He wanted to tell him to lift the curse. He’d apologise if he had to, he just wanted it lifted. The line rang out. Kelvin called again twenty minutes later and the same thing happened. He left it overnight and rang again in the morning, only to get the same piercingly high-pitched tone. Maybe Russell was on holiday, or out on another job. Kelvin tapped the handset impatiently against the wall. He couldn’t wait. He wanted this sorted now. He’d have preferred to have had the matter out with Russell without the ordeal of having to face him – he wasn’t a fan of confrontation, and besides … that beard! My God! – but he’d do it if he had to. It had been raining all morning, and was forecast to continue well into the afternoon, so Kelvin decided to take the bus. The short journey didn’t allow him much time to plan what he was going to say, but Kelvin didn’t need time. He knew exactly the words he was going to use.

Russell had indeed been out on a job. He’d spent the past two days fitting a new downstairs bathroom for an elderly woman in Bathgate, a job he’d intended to finish in a single day. But the woman’s afternoon carer had failed to show, and with shopping to be done and dinner to be cooked, it wasn’t long before Russell had found himself in a supermarket aisle comparing Best Before dates on 4-packs of Scotch pies when he should have been grouting the bath. It was dark by the time the resultant meal was finished and the dishes done, and Russell had had to abandon his work for the evening. He’d turned up the following morning half-expecting to be asked to plaster the woman’s ceiling, or wash her feet, but the morning carer was already there, allowing Russell to finish the job in peace. The work complete, he’d Hoovered up after him and returned to the shop. He’d only just arrived when Kelvin appeared. He remembered Kelvin, of course. There aren’t many people, in the week before Christmas, who choose to buy a new shower. He’d immediately been suspicious of Kelvin, mainly because of his aggressive insistence on paying by credit card. The thought had crossed Russell’s mind that maybe Kelvin had spent all his cash on gifts and was taking advantage of the usual Christmas delay in processing card transactions. In the end, it didn’t really matter. The money cleared, and both parties were happy. So why was he back? What did he want?

At first, when Kelvin began shouting at him, Russell had no idea what he was talking about. The concept of a curse – any curse, far less one on a fucking shower! – was totally alien to him, and his initial thought was that this was a prank; that, for whatever reason, Kelvin was taking the piss. He was forced to reassess this opinion, however, when Kelvin grabbed him by the collar and pulled him over the counter, still yelling for Russell to lift the curse from off his shower. Russell, coming to his senses, yelled back that if Kelvin didn’t take his fucking hands off him right this fucking minute, he was calling the fucking police! Kelvin’s response was simply to bounce the man’s head against the counter until he heard it crack. Then he dropped his hands. Stood back. Looked down at Russell. He told Russell he was giving him one last chance to lift the curse. Russell, being dead, wasn’t in a fit state to lift anything, far less a curse, and his body slid backwards off the counter onto the floor on the other side, where it landed with an embarrassingly weak thump.

Back home, Kelvin strode into the bathroom with the mallet he’d just purchased from B&Q. Without waiting to take his jacket off, he began laying into the shower unit. The metallic ‘ting’ when the mallet hit the unit sent a jarring jolt of pain shooting all along Kelvin’s arm. As excruciating as it was, Kelvin ignored it. He stood back, re-positioned the mallet, took aim, and renewed his attack. The shower had to die. Now. Tonight. Everything else was irrelevant.

Sweat was flicking from Kelvin’s hair by the time the metal of the unit buckled. A few, well-aimed smacks later and the hose had escaped its elaborate housing and cracks had begun appearing in the wall behind, rippling out like spider-legs. To a demented Kelvin, the sight of the cracks was intoxicating. He eyed their progress – they grew wider with each wild lunge – with all the doomed desire of an alcoholic. He continued ploughing into the unit, the blows intensifying in time with his own breathless grunts. He hoped to separate the unit from the wall and then, once separated, to tackle it on its own, the ritual killing of the master by the servant. He was Brutus to the shower’s Caesar, crossing his own final Rubicon. Suddenly there was water everywhere. He’d struck a weakened spot in the hose and it had split, sending a foaming torrent across the bathroom, drenching everything, himself included. A shocked Kelvin dropped the mallet, letting it fall onto his left foot, where it crushed his big toe through the flimsiness of his slip-ons. Kelvin didn’t feel a thing. The water had hypnotised him. It plastered his hair to his forehead, stuck his shirt to his skin, and turned the pale blue of his jeans jet black.

The pain, when it came, started at the shoulder, and ran slowly across the back of his neck, before dropping down the front of his chest and stopping Kelvin’s heart. In the few moments he had left, Kelvin followed the pain down as it invaded his stomach and groin, collapsed his thighs and calves, and settled, finally, on his feet, where it took each toe out as though it were a candle on a birthday cake. This abstract thought triggered the very last memory Kelvin was to have of this life: He was thirteen years old, and his parents had just bought him a birthday cake in the shape of a football. Kelvin had hated football, but it was all they had left in the shop. His mother was more excited than he was at the appearance of the cake, and his father was clucking around the kitchen holding his Kodak, anxiously awaiting the moment he could use it. Mother and father were proud of their son. He was a good boy. They’d brought him up well. He’d never harm a soul. They stood beside each other, the happy couple, a smile covering one face, a camera covering the other, and watched as Kelvin, awkwardly and quickly, blew out what was left of an already old life.

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Gordon is a writer and filmmaker from Scotland. His short stories and flash fiction have appeared in a number of online and paper publications, including Octavius Magazine, Negative Assets Zine, SHIFT Lit, Flash Fiction Magazine, Short Fiction Break, [Untitled], and Fictive Dream. His latest short film – ‘The Chair’ – won Best Super Short at the 2016 UK Screen One International Film Festival.

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