He’d never meant to chop her head off. That had never been his intent, though everybody at the time seemed convinced it had been. He’d just wanted it to be, to feel authentic. He’d tied her hands behind her back with garden twine and marched her, one hand clamped to her elbow, just as he imagined they would have in the fifteen hundreds, to the makeshift platform constructed from upended pallets. Darren oriented her into position before the ‘block’ and Tracey cursed as a grubby trainer went through a rotten slat. “Fuck’s sake, Darren.”
Tracey’s father was an inveterate hoarder of pallets: in his spare time he fancied himself as a carpenter and knocked up birdhouses out of them, not particularly good ones if truth be told and none were ever sold, if that had been his intent. The birdhouses were in fact of such a shoddy construction even the birds avoided them, despite all sorts of choice treats and temptations slung from their frontages. The only ones ever used them were the Two Fat Pig-Eons which her father despised, impugning them as flying rats and towards which he would hurl poorly aimed rocks, bawling at them to fuck off.
The block was an inverted terracotta planter. So far as Darren knew it had never held anything other than weeds. To the front of this had been placed a redundant plastic laundry basket, retrieved by Tracey’s eight year old sister, Amanda, from the side of the shed where all the other ‘cast outs’ were crammed and intended now as the receptacle into which Tracey’s freshly cleaved head would descend. Darren instructed Tracey to get on her knees, place her neck on the block and remain looking down. “Yow fuckin’ jowkin’?” Tracey complained. “Luk at thu muck on it? It’s disgustin’.” With an irate groan, Darren removed his shirt and draped it over the base of the tub.
“For your comfort maam,” he said with a flourish.
Tracey grimaced but nonetheless complied, gracelessly dropping to her knees, then shuffling forward to settle her neck on the cool ceramic. Amanda hovered on the periphery observing the proceedings with a blank detachment. Picking up the lightweight plastic axe, separated from the matching sword and shield of Darren’s Dave the Knight play set, she offered it to him with an inexplicable curtsy. Darren had no idea why she did that. It wasn’t called for. An executioner wasn’t royalty. He declined the axe and instead positioned an upright finger to his lips and gave a conspiratorial wink. Not bothering to wait for what he knew would be a sluggish frown he hastened up the small path to her father’s shed and from inside purloined the small stainless steel axe hanging from two screws set into the wall. Its weight took him by surprise. The blade, freckled with rust, tugged with a persuasive gravity, compelling him to slide one hand further up the handle to the peeling red paint of the shoulder and the other downwards to the split wood of the curved grip as support. He searched for something to test it on.
“Hurry up, Daz me knees are killing me.”
He peered through the dun Perspex of the shed’s window and saw Tracey was still obediently kneeling, head positioned face down to the basket. “What the fuck are yum doin’?” she complained. Scouring the assorted apparatus of what his mother termed ‘Hap Handed Bodgism’, sanders, jigsaws and lines of congruent screwdrivers, he noticed to the right of a table spilling over with tools a sizeable plank of cedar wood. Canted against the rear panel of the shed, Darren judged it to have the perfect thickness for a test. Heaving it to the floor he raised the axe and sank the head in with as much force as a ten year old could muster. With an audible crack the wood split, the slightly blunted blade immersed roughly halfway into the timber. Obviously a great deal more force would be required to sever a head. There was, after all, a spine to get through; bone, cartilage – sinew. The axe however, he determined, was more than up to the job. “What the fuck wus that? What’s he doin’ Mand?”
“Coming,” he called back brightly. It took some effort to free the head. He had to lever it forward to the toe end, then twist it left, then right, then push downwards with all his strength to the heel before it came out.
“Just get on wi’ it,” Tracey whined as he re-acquired his position above her head.
“Mask,” he barked, darting out his hand to Amanda. She frowned at the real axe resting across his shoulder. Dumbly she handed over the small hessian vegetable sack into which Darren had earlier cut two irregular eye holes. He tugged it over his head, positioned his feet equidistant from each other and aligned the blade with Tracey’s exposed neck. “Fuck thut’s cowld,” she moaned as the blade nuzzled her skin. She shuffled her bent legs and attempted to twist her head around.
“Stay still,” he hissed.
“The crack of my ass is showing. I know it is.” Her track suit bottoms had indeed ridden down a little. “Mand’, is the crack of my ass showing?”
Amanda performed a languid turn of her head towards her sister’s rear end. “It’s showing,” she acknowledged, then returned her gaze to Darren who remained stooped with the axe hovering above Tracey’s neck. “You look funny in that,” she said, indicating with an adipose finger the skewed oversize sack on his head.
“Pull me bottoms up then,” Tracey snapped. “Oi down’t want ‘im seein’ moi ass.”
“Oh crap,” Darren blurted, realizing he’d forgotten the most important part of the entire thing. “We forgot the penny.”
“What fuckin’ penny?” Tracey complained.
“You have to pay the executioner a penny so he makes a clean cut. It’s standard practice.”
“What if I aint got a fuckin’ penny?”
“Then the executioner botches it. My Dad says that happened with Thomas Cromwell. Nobody liked him and the executioner didn’t get his penny so he made a right mess of it. Took two or three chops to get his head off and Cromwell was screaming and there was blood everywhere .”
“Who the fuck’s Cromwell? Mand, cover me ass.”
“Have you got a penny?” Darren implored.
“How the fuck can oi give yow a penny? Me ‘ands are tied an’ oim on me knees, which by the way are fuckin killing me.”
Darren turned his attention to Amanda. “You can pay me then. That’s acceptable”
Amanda reached down and plucked a small stone from the lawn. “Here’s a penny,” she said.
“No,” he said firmly. “It has to be real.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, do it matter?” Tracey was becoming quite agitated.
“Yes, it matters a great deal. It has to be authentic.” He turned to address Amanda again. “Do you know where you can get a penny?”
“Mand,’ yow know where Mom keeps the Tom don’t ya?”
“No, the fuckin’ Tom. Dad calls it the Johnny. Mom calls it the Tom. Yow call it the Johnny to her and she’ll ignore yow till yow either call it the Tom or yow piss off. It’s in the spice jar in the cupboard; yeah? If yow can’t find it jus’ yell Mom an’ ask ‘er where the Tom is. But before yow go cover me fuckin’ ass.”
Amanda tugged half heartedly at the waistband of her sister’s tracksuit bottoms. Tracey grunted and shuffled her knees and the hem slid up a little to hold just above her haunches for a moment before riding down again. “That’s better,” said Amanda.
“Yow sure? It down’t feel better.”
Amanda said no more and ran off into the house. Darren sat on the garden swing and waited, axe resting between his feet, sack still over his head. From inside the kitchen came the sound of cupboard doors slamming. Then Amanda screeched, “Mom, where’s the Johnny?”
“The Tom,” screamed Tracey.
“The what?” screamed their mother from an upstairs bedroom.
“The Johnny,” screamed Amanda.
“The fucking Tom,” screamed Tracey.
“You mean the Tom?” screamed their mother.
Darren pushed himself gently back and forth using the axe. The swing’s frame, which had never been properly secured into the lawn, squeaked and half lifted each time he swung forward. He thought how, on this estate, he and Tracey were quite well off, seeing as they both had the use of the upstairs bedrooms. At least three other kids in their school had to sleep downstairs because their roofs had gone the way of their Dads. Samantha Mercer slept in a sleeping bag in the hallway with her two brothers, the living room being the adult space where she entertained numerous uncles with the TV on all night.
“Yeah,” screamed Amanda.
“In the cupboard where the pop is.”
“I looked in there. It ain’t there.”
“Well fuckin’ look again. What do ya wan’ it for anyway?”
“Darren’s chopping Tracey’s head off an’ ‘e needs a penny.”
“Just get the fucking penny, me knees are killing me.” Tracey bawled. Darren creaked back and forth.
A pause, then a slam of a door; then Amanda reappeared, dashing back with that distinctive waddle. Darren took payment of the penny and regained his feet. “Thank you kind madam, I shall endeavor to make a clean cut of it.”
“Oh fuckin’ ‘urry up, me legs are cramping.”
“What yow mean Darren’s chopping Tracey’s head off?” came their mother’s disembodied voice as Darren retook his position on the platform. Setting his feet either side of Tracey’s head he spat into the palms of his hands and made a big deal of hefting up the axe. His forearms ached with the effort of supporting its weight. Taking a moment to re-acquaint the blade with the nape of Tracey’s neck he felt his lower back twinge and the muscles of his upper legs quiver. Then with a marshalling of effort he raised the axe above his head, eyes fixed on the point of intended impact. Quite what he intended to do following this eluded him. He fancied he might bring it down gentle and see what happened, get an impression of what it might feel like as the blade descended and then struck her flesh. Well not struck, sort of touched really. He’d do his utmost to arrest the blade’s decline at the last minute, he hoped, though if he failed, stumbled or lost his footing, then the whole thing could surely be attributed to an unfortunate accident. There could be no question of his having had any deliberate intent to remove her head. Not at his age. Though as it turned out things never got that far. As he swayed unsteadily with the axe above him, its mass oscillating him from side to side like one of those passengers he’d seen in The Poseidon Adventure, he heard from the direction of the half open back door a wail of banshee like proportions. Allowing himself a brief upward glance he discovered the howls to be emanating from Tracey’s wraith thin mother. She was charging straight at him, her yellow teeth bared. “Nyaaaaaaaaagh,” she screamed. Stumbling on a small step leading to the lawn, she croaked a brief “fookin’ hell,” before resuming her charge and continuing with the shrieked “nyaaaaaaargh.” Such were the exaggerated proportions of her howling in fact, Darren wondered for a moment if this wasn’t some effort on her part to join in the proceedings, her now assuming the role of some maniacal foot soldier or perhaps, more authentically, some peasant loon intent on saving the condemned queen from execution. Then she was upon him. Her arms enveloped his waist and her head impacted into his chest as she performed something of an inept dive/rugby tackle, wrestling him to the ground and propelling the axe from his hands and into the pallet constructed walls of the shed. His executioner’s cowl was thrown off and he found himself subjected to an emetic mixture of alcohol, cigarettes and some other more funky odor, most likely the source of which lay amongst her rotting dentition. “Yow croizy little bustard, what yow think yum trying ta dow?” He winced against a spray of atomized spittle. With her angular, cadaver – like face hanging above him, he watched what little musculature she possessed do its best to contort her features into a display of outrage/horror Tracey’s mother had always struck him as having a corpse like appearance. In fact his own father had often averred, following brief encounters with her, ( usually between the dense branches of what Darren later discovered – having plenty of time on his hands in his cell in Winson Green – was an American bladdernut tree, inexplicably seeded and grown decades before) that Barbara Beale ‘looked like a fuckin’ corpse,’ what with all her Drinking and Smoking and Hard Living; whatever that entailed.
“Your daughter has been condemned for acts of treason against the crown ma’am and I was therefore in the process of carrying out my sworn duty, as executioner, of cleaving her head from her body.”
“What?” Her face contorted in outrage. Darren attempted a grin. “Yow mad little bostard,” she cried.
Amanda appeared beside them holding in her hand a redundant curtain pole. She interposed the pointed silver finial between their faces, twitching the roughened plastic upwards so it tapped her mother’s nose, and offered; “This is what I was going to stick her head on. I was going to put it on top of the shed.”
“Me fukin’ knees,” Tracey continued to wail. Moldy timber complained.
“Yow crazy little shit, that wuz a real axe.” Barbara Beale’s eyes, Darren noticed, were bloodshot and not a little dilated. He decided it might be best to drop the Tudor vernacular.
“Of course it was, Mrs Beale. It had to be authentic. Like the penny was authentic.” He tried another appeasing grin.
“Fookin’ hell.” Along with the grimace her language seemed fixed upon the repetition of this single phrase. “Fookin’ hell,” she said again with a little more emphasis on the fookin’. With her hands fastened to his wrists she pressed them a little harder into the ground.
“Don’t go too mental on him, mom,” Amanda appealed. She pushed the curtain pole into the soft ground beside her foot. “It was just what he calls an Authentic Re-enactment. Doctors’ could have put her head back on. They can do anything these days.”
Tracey, by now sick of being ignored, rolled herself onto her side and unable to arrest her momentum, tumbled off the platform onto the lawn, groaning. “Somebody untie me hands for fucks sake. Oi can’t feel me fingers.”
Brenda sprang to her feet and stumbled over to her daughter. “Get back on that platform and put your head back on that pot. I wan’ ‘em to see.”
“Piss off, mom. Me knees are killin’ me.”
“Don’t swear at me you little shit, get back up there.” Apprehending her by the collar of her track suit she dragged her back to the upended pallets and manhandled her head back onto the planter. “Stay there.” she ordered. While Darren picked himself up, Brenda stormed past him and hefted up the axe from the lawn. Shoving her head between the skinny branches of the bladdernut tree she screamed into Darren’s garden. “Oi, oi, one of you pair get out here. You seen what this little bastard’s tried ta do with my daughter?” With no response forthcoming she plucked from the ground two small stones and hurled one at his parent’s bedroom window and the second at the pane of their back door. This, the larger of the two, succeeded in cracking the glass, the exploding fragments compelling the two fat Pig-Eons to make inept attempts at flight. Within a few seconds the door was flung open and his father stumbled out onto the patio. Darren saw from his watch he had been woken from right in the middle of Getting His Head Down Time. This always coincided with his mother feeding Darren’s brother, who at seven years old had only stumps for arms and stumps for legs. It was something to do with pills she’d taken when she was pregnant. Fists bunched instinctively against the unseen culprit he swiveled around wildly, the few sparse strands of hair he had remaining twirling irresolute about his bald crown.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he roared, initially to no one in particular. He yelled the C word That Should Never Be Repeated. Getting His Head Down Time was an unbreakable routine that, if only moderately interrupted, by a sneeze, a cough or a loudly shut door, could result in extremes of yelling and violence. Stumbling bleary eyed towards Brenda’s shrill voice he scraped his leg on a plastic planter, cursed and kicked at it repeatedly with the toe end of an unlaced boot. Darren had once seen his father take a mallet to an internal door just because the pocket of his coat got caught in its handle. He’d smashed gigantic holes in it, tore it from its hinges, jumped up and down on it and then stood there screaming at the fractured wood, letting it know Good and Proper how it had just made the biggest mistake of its fucking life messing with him like that. Grabbing now at the wire fence, several of the tree’s seed pods burst open. To the tune of numerous popping his thick fingers oozed between the hexagonal gaps. Sometimes in the summer months Darren and Tracey would stamp on the pods, or rub them carefully between a thumb and forefinger to gauge the fullness of the air inside, the tension beneath the papery surface revealing just the right spot to apply pressure for the perfect pop. Sometimes they would wheel his brother out and place them in his inadequate hands so he could burst them for himself, listening to him squeal with pleasure. “Yow fuckin’ nutter yow’ve cracked moi back window,” his father growled through bared teeth.
Brenda wielded the axe. “Oi’m a nutter? Yow seen what yowz kid’s tried to do with moi Tracey?” She indicated with the axe head her daughter’s procumbent bulk on the platform.
“So?” His face pulled itself into a look of disdain. “Kid’s playin.’ What’s yow problem?”
“With a real axe?”
“Well if yowz stupid enough to leave it lying around what do yowz expect?”
“That demented kid of yowz went into the shed and gut it. It wasn’t just lying around. He’d’ve chopped moi Tracey’s ‘ead clean off if oi ‘adn’t stopped him.”
“Aw, yowz just pissed again. Yow need tu get off the booze and get off yer scrawny arse is what yow need tu do. I mean pissed up at this toime a the day. Fuckin disgrace.”
Brenda stumbled backwards a little, her face stricken. “Oi ain’t pissed. It’s a good job oi saw what oi saw when oi did. As for yum, youwz a good one to talk. At least moi other ‘alf don’t knock me about. Don’t try to strangle me neither. Don’t think oi don’t know.”
“Lying old piss head. Oi don’t touch Gill.”
“Had her up against the kitchen wall by the neck last week. These walls are thin ya know. Oi’ve heard ya. Oi see where this little nutcase gets it from. Yer ‘ole familiy’s weird, including that brother of ‘is.”
Suddenly his Father began to scale the rickety fence supporting the tree. As he swore and cursed, Darren heard more pods snapping. “Yow want sum then, eh? Yum owld pissed up cow.”
The fence held his weight for a grand total of fifteen seconds before collapsing and tossing his Father, headfirst, onto the uneven slabs of Brenda’s patio. Dennis displayed little more aptitude in slab laying than he did in birdhouse construction.
Brenda made an ungainly effort to avoid his descending bulk and fell flat on her rear end, the axe, still held firmly in her grip, striking the concrete with a loud metallic bang. This took her inebriated rage to a new, more elevated level. Picking herself up she grabbed the axe and stumbled over to where Darren’s father lay swearing on the floor. “Gonna show me are ya big man?” As he struggled to gain his feet scattered bladders crackled beneath his knees and elbows.
Brenda raised the axe. It swooned momentarily above her head, her skinny legs quivering and her arms looking as though they might at any moment drop it altogether. Which, in light of what happened next, would have been no bad thing seeing as she then brought it down with a force Darren considered surprisingly disproportionate to her build.
“Can someone untie my friggin’ hands?” Tracey implored as she rolled for the second time off the platform.
Darren, however, along with Amanda, was fixated by the blood spilling from his father. It initially exploded over Brenda, who made an alarmed squeal, and then expanded from somewhere around his head/neck area, though it was difficult to determine given there was so much of it. His arms and legs thrashed and he emitted a brief wail. The last time Darren had heard a sound like that was when Shane Rammage came off his motorbike on the way back from snorting coke in the Seven Sister’s Caves.
“I think that’s what you call authentic,” averred Amanda.
“Yes, I think that’s pretty much what it would have been like for Thomas Cromwell,” Darren agreed. Already his mind was toiling with the prospect he would likely never see his father again. Not that he saw him all that much anyway. He was either at work or asleep or wolfing down his dinner with his head buried in the newspaper. He’d miss those occasions when he’d had a few drinks and went on about all these weird things happened in history though. “Dad says the executioner made such a mess of chopping his head off the crowd watching Spewed everywhere. I suppose like, one person Spewed and the person behind looking at that – seeing him Spewing – then seeing the mess the executioner was making – and then looking back at the person Spewing made him Spew and it all sort of turned into a Spewing party from there.”
“I think I might Spew,” Amanda said.
Brenda staggered back above his father. She caressed her knees and made an uncertain sound in her throat. It reminded Darren of the sound his mother made when she reached the till at the Spa and realized she hadn’t quite got enough money. She did that a lot. All the time actually. “Aah,” she’d go and pat pointlessly at coat pockets she knew to be empty, search in her handbag for a purse she knew wasn’t there.
“Aah,” Brenda said, patting her knees. “Yow okay? Yow know, oi didn’t mean ta do that. Not hit yow as ‘ard as oi did. I mean, oi didn’t mean it ta go in loik that.” She gave a concise laugh. “Typical a moi Dennis. Sharpens the fuckin’ thing for the first time in ten years when I ‘ave a blarney with yow.”
His father was silent. Brenda rocked back and forth, almost squatting. She patted her knees in the manner of a resolution. “Tell yow what; oi’ll get that out of yow an’ then we’ll see ‘ow yow am. Eh?” His father didn’t move.
Brenda manipulated the axe, just like Darren had when he’d struggled to free it from that block of cedar wood. She grunted with the effort, pulling the handle up, then pushing it down, then twisting it from side to side. “Cor its well in that ain’t it?” she said said and started to scream.
Stuart J Watts
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
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