The bloody entrails tumble from the carcass like strings of misshapen sausages. Hayden guides them into a bucket on the stone floor, trying not to gag. Taking a shallow breath he reaches into the torso and cuts the last of the connective tissue with his scalpel. Gravity yanks the guts down into the overflowing bucket.
This is how it begins; his most ambitious taxidermy project. He’s pretty good at stuffing deceased pets and the injured prey-birds people bring in. Truth is, he has quite a reputation. But this project is different; it’s unique and it’s deeply personal. No book nor website can instruct him; this is pioneer territory. He’s on his own, almost: he’ll accept a little guidance from his mentor, Mrs Pettigrew.
This is the plan, he explains to her, sitting in her cosy sitting room; telly murmuring in the background, gas-fire radiating a gentle heat:
Step 1: Slit open the hide along the spine, access and remove the major organs.
Step 2: Drain off the blood and scrape out the viscera.
Step 3: Wash the hide using a chemical solution until the water runs clear, then apply a generous rub of non-iodized salt and borax powder.
Step 4: Hang the salted hide to dry for at least a week. Use the hooks in the scullery; several at once in order to distribute the weight of the carcass and avoid any risk of tearing.
Step 5. Soak the cured hide in a plastic dustbin, changing the water until it softens. Dry it again.
Finally comes the stuffing process. This is where the true art of the taxidermist lies. Like Dr Frankenstein he will re-animate the corpse, but no lightning bolt or occult ritual is required. Only his creative abilities with wire-mesh and foam; the way he evokes natural poses; the way he positions glass eyes so they meet the gaze of the onlooker. Mrs Pettigrew remains silent. This is typical and he takes her silence as an endorsement.
Not everything goes according to plan. He accidentally perforates the bowel causing a nauseating smell of excrement to permeate the sluice room. He stumbles from the room gagging and throws open a window, gulping in the metallic London air. Still queasy, he goes for a walk to try and settle his stomach.
Despite the relentless progress of gentrification, this part of Islington reveals nooks and corners of an older, peculiar London where unusual and bizarre shops are still to be found: Button King; an Aladdin’s cave containing every sort of button or fastening you could possibly imagine. Pinball Paradise; a surprisingly cavernous repair shop in a cellar which he often visits to gaze at the inner workings of these mechanical marvels. His favourite is The Adams Family machine, which he longs to be able to afford. There is one shop he regular passes, but never dares enter. Its name is Infantilised and its shop window is dominated by a giant pram obviously designed for an adult occupant. Hurrying past, his right hand seeks out the tiny vial of blood hanging from his neck by a silver chain; a nervous habit triggered by unwelcome phantoms of memories he’d rather forget.
Eventually his steps bring him back to the façade of The Right Stuff, Mrs Pettigrew’s taxidermy shop and the only place he’s ever felt safe. He pauses to gaze appreciatively at Boris – a Siberian black-bear rearing up as if to strike at Nahash, a giant African python. It’s illegal to sell these animals but they’ve been bequeathed to Mrs Pettigrew long ago by Major Arthur Reardon, explorer and big-game hunter.
The window to the right of the door displays a fox surveying a woodland diorama containing a rabbit and a stoat. Bearing down on all of them with glassy-eyed menace is Bill the Buzzard, preserved forever in his endless dive. Bill is still impressive, but the woodland animals have deteriorated, making the scene look sad and neglected. With Mrs Pettigrew’s blessing he intends to replace it with his new masterpiece. He spits on his sleeve and wipes away the grime on the sign which reads: “Closed: viewings by appointment only.” The Right Stuff does not welcome casual enquirers, unwanted intruders or surprises of any kind. It’s Hayden’s sanctuary and he spends all his time here; sleeping fitfully on a camp bed in the utility room protected in a dreamless limbo by whisky and sleeping pills.
The stuffing has been tricky, but successful. Now he’s spraying on textured paint to evoke mud and dust baked on to skin by relentless African sun. His mind wanders then and suddenly the old memories arrive like unwanted guests. Flashback to thirteen years old and Mum’s telling him they’re moving in with her boyfriend Paul and his son Darren, whom Hayden has yet to meet.
“What if I don’t get on with him?” he complains.
“Oh Hayden, you’re teenage boys; you’re bound to have lots in common,” says Mum confidently.
“Well how old is he?” Hayden asks, pretty sure adults don’t make major decisions like this without discussing them first.
“He’s fourteen,” says Mum, “but small for his age. Now, enough questions. This is happening so let’s put our best foot forward and be the change we want to see.”
“That’s Ghandi, Mum,” replies Hayden impatiently. “And you’re misquoting him.”
“Really darling? Sounds like common sense to me.”
Hayden bites his tongue. Mum can make toys out of the rubbish and tasty meals from gone-off left-overs, but common sense isn’t one of her talents.
He remembers moving day. Mum’s anxious fussing, offset by Paul’s stoical patience. By four pm they’re trying to settle in to their new home. It’s good to get away from the claustrophobic council flat, but he misses the lingering, musky scent of Dad which clings to the furnishings; none of which are owned; all of which they will leave behind forever.
Paul’s place is a shabby terrace in the maze of Victorian backstreets between Islington and Stoke Newington. Hayden doesn’t dislike Paul; at least he never tries to act like his father, but he’s not stupid: things will change; it won’t just be him and Mum anymore.
As Paul shows him to the bedroom he’s to share with Darren, he clears his throat and says, “We’re going to be alright Hayden; you and Darren, me and your Mum.” Paul smiles, but Hayden sees only a dishonest mask, hiding unspoken worries and secret thoughts.
The first afternoon after moving in, Darren is notably absent. “He’ll come home when he’s hungry,” Paul shrugs. They’re sitting down to dinner, when the front door bangs and Darren enters the dining room. Hayden stifles a gasp and tries not to stare. Why hasn’t Mum warned him? Darren isn’t just small; he’s a dwarf. Well, not a dwarf exactly because he’s in proportion; more like a six year old child wearing the sardonic sneer of a worldly-wise teenager. Hayden shoots Mum an accusatory glance, but she avoids his gaze. Darren silently takes his place at the table adding to the already awkward atmosphere which Mum and Paul are attempting to disguise with banal chat about Paul’s antiques business.
When Darren finally speaks, he’s well-spoken and self-assured.
“So this is the boy is it?” he asks Paul, without looking at Hayden.
“That’s right” says Paul and launches into a speech about how they’re one family now, which Hayden quickly recognises as a string of platitudes often used by grown-ups when they are caught with their pants down.
“Dad didn’t tell me you were a ginger,” are Darren’s first words to Hayden as soon as they are alone in their bedroom, closely followed by: “Are your pubes ginger too?”
Hayden bristles, but bites his tongue. He’s heard plenty of ginger jibes, but not from a midget. Darren must be testing him.
“Wow, that’s original,” he replies at last.
“So yes, then,” snorts Darren before falling silent, apparently mesmerised by something on his phone.
It’s not a great start.
Hayden soon discovers a dark mystique to Darren. He exercises almost constantly lifting dumbbells and grunting his way through pull-ups and sit-ups wearing only his underpants with absolutely no self-consciousness about his childlike body. He is also, to Hayden’s surprise, a keen reader and has a bookcase by his bed full of surprising books; history, biography, philosophy, but not a single work of fiction.
One evening Darren catches him studying the spines of his bookcase.
“Like books, then?” he asks sarcastically.
“Sure,” replies Hayden cautiously, hardly daring to believe that reading might be a shared interest.
“So where are yours?” says Darren. “Still in those boxes you haven’t unpacked?”
“On my Amazon cloud,” says Hayden. “Over 400,” he adds proudly.
“Woop, woop!” snorts Darren sarcastically.
“I bet you like Harry Potter and crap like that,” he adds dismissively.
Hayden is about to protest, but a chirrup from Darren’s phone suddenly galvanises him into action.
“Gotta pop out,” he mutters, pulling his trainers on and grabbing a jacket.
“Take a look at these and maybe we’ll talk when I get back,” he adds throwing some books onto Hayden’s bed.
Hayden picks the books up one at a time, scanning the dust-jackets:
The Way of the Samurai by some Japanese nut-job called Yukio Mishima; Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche, who he’s heard of, but never read; and Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley. As he flicks through the pages looking for pictures, he’s struck by the sheer amount of hand-written annotations and underlinings. One that leaps out from the Motley is, “Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse.” The Nietzsche is well-thumbed and contains many scrawls relating to the ‘Ubermensch’; the ‘Superhuman’.
Next he decides to browse through Darren’s stuff: Macbook Pro, cupboard full of box-fresh trainers; the latest PlayStation and X-box with all the games and puzzlingly, a shoe-box full of disposable burner-phones and SIM cards.
Darren may look like a child, but he’s two years older than Hayden. He has little interest in academic achievement, but to Hayden his ability to harness and embody ideas about machismo and guilt-free living are fascinating and awesome.
Hayden doesn’t have any close friends and finds himself drawn into Darren’s dark orbit. When Darren challenges Hayden to become his blood brother, clearly a test, he feels powerless to resist. Darren cuts their hands with a kitchen knife then clasps each together to allow their blood to co-mingle. They are now bound to each other for life, he says and produces two identical pendant necklaces with vials which will contain each other’s blood as proof.
It sounds scary, but it makes Hayden feel important for the first time in ages.
One evening they walk to the nearby council estate with its concrete walkways and flickering lobbies smelling of urine. A small nervous boy in a hoodie is waiting in the shadows. He has a hungry-looking dog on a lead; a staffie, notes Hayden who is hoping for a dog of his own for Christmas.
Without speaking, the boy hands Darren a roll of twenties. Darren counts them twice, then folds his arms.
The boy twitches with impatience
“Have you got the stuff?” he whispers urgently.
Darren stands still as a statue, saying nothing.
“Mate, the gear, have you got it?”
“No,” says Darren coldly, examining his fingernails. “I’m closing you down.”
“What? Why?” hisses the boy
“Been skimming, haven’t you?”
“I ain’t!” the boy stammers, but there’s a tremor in his voice
“Yes, you fucking have,” snaps Darren and jumping up, head-butts the boy in the nose. There’s an audible wet crunch as the boy’s septum fractures. He staggers forward clutching his nose with both hands and drops the dog lead. The staffie snarls and makes to leap at Darren.
Darren pulls out a pepper spray from his jacket, sprays it directly into the dog’s eyes. It howls and runs in tight, blind circles. He steps forward and kicks it hard. It yelps and leaps into the air, only to receive another vicious kick propelling it into a wall. This time Hayden hears bone cracking. It hits the ground like a sack of potatoes and lies twitching and panting.
Hayden can see that Darren is out of control.
“C’mon, let’s go,” he says quietly, tugging at Darren’s sleeve.
Darren shakes him off and makes to stamp on the pathetic dog.
“No, don’t!” shouts hoodie-boy staggering to his feet.
Darren turns and kicks hoodie-boy to the ground where he lies inert, curled in a foetal position among the fag butts and hard blobs of chewing gum.
“You alright Hay?” he asks as they walk towards the estate’s exit.
“Yeah, fine,” mutters Hayden, feeling as heavy and hopeless as a broken heart.
Darren pats him gently in the small of his back.
“Never pity the weak, Hay. Nature doesn’t and nor should you.”
The following evening the police come and take Darren away; they’ve been watching him for some time. They offer to let Hayden off with a caution if he corroborates hoodie-boy’s statement. Whether it’s the pleading look in Paul’s eyes, the complicit stare of his mother, or a misplaced loyalty to Darren, he just can’t. As a result both boys are referred to Ravenscroft House for young offenders.
Hayden shrugs off the memory with a shudder and puts down the spray gun. He throws some modelling sand over the body where it clings to the paint producing a convincing patina of desert winds. Next comes his favourite part. Carefully opening a box he unwraps the marble eyes from their bubble wrap. He’s had them custom made from a photograph and they look uncannily like the originals; large, dark-brown irises almost indistinct from the pupils. He glues them into the eye sockets fixing their gaze straight ahead so that they appear to challenge the observer. It’s a look of supreme confidence, of pent up merciless conquest barely held in check; a look he knows only too well. Don’t think, don’t think! But too late: the memories overwhelm him once more.
He’s face down on a dormitory bed in Ravenscroft House; head jammed sideways. The fat boy they call ‘Moobs’ is kneeling on his back pinning his arms to his side. Two other boys; Drake and Trench are trying to force a broom handle up his arse. He can’t breathe and the more he clenches, the more the broom handle hurts. Then he hears Darren’s voice.
“What the fuck are you doing you weirdos?” he says, his words muffled as if his mouth is full.
“Sex education, what do you think?” Trench sneers. Then Drake, the ringleader speaks.
“What’s it to you, you little freak? Want some, do you?”
“You’d struggle to get a matchstick up his,” Moobs chimes in and they all laugh.
Hayden manages to twist his head slightly so that he can see Darren. To his amazement he’s casually brushing his teeth.
“Just keep the fucking noise down ok? I can hear you disgusting pervs from the bathroom,” he says eyeballing Drake. There’s no way Drake is letting that comment pass. He moves towards Darren like a panther stalking its prey.
“Are you feeling suicidal, midget boy?” he says calmly, but with icy menace. Darren spits toothpaste on the floor and waits. Drake looms over him, pupils dilated, breath metallic with amphetamines. Hayden’s memory of what happens next is distorted and unreliable, like the fragments of a dream.
Without breaking eye contact, Darren slices Drake across the neck with the handle of his toothbrush which he’s spent weeks sharpening into a blade. Numbed by drugs and adrenaline, Drake doesn’t realise what has happened. He instinctively bats away the toothbrush, then turns to his mates smirking and gesturing. But Trench and Moobs are not smiling; they are staring bug-eyed at the ribbon of red around Drake’s neck, which is spreading rapidly.
“Mate, he’s shivved you,” gasps Trench. Only now Drake senses the danger. He tries to speak, but can only emit a low gargle. Then his hands go to his throat and his blood soaked t-shirt and his eyes are wide with a feeling he has not felt for a long time; the feeling is fear.
Hayden examines his finished project from all sides. The shop window is prepared; the decrepit woodland diorama replaced with sand and rocks. Bill, the buzzard is staying for now. He’s considered replacing him with a vulture, but Bill generates enquiries from clients wanting prey-birds stuffed: nobody wants a stuffed vulture. Before he can mount his project there is one more memory he needs to relive. It’s another part of his story – part of his project and unlike the other memories, he wants to remember it; treasure it; dust it off like an old diary and re-read it with the wisdom of hindsight.
It’s late one misty, polluted evening. Hayden’s working late, fixing the expression on a client’s Cocker Spaniel; not ‘perky’ enough apparently. There’s a knock at the shop door. He ignores it, but the knock repeats at regular intervals. Eventually he goes to the door, but no one’s there. He peers into the murky gloom, scanning the street. Then he hears a familiar voice from below.
“Hello Hay, have you missed me?” Darren’s wild-eyed and to Hayden’s alarm is carrying a sawn-off shot gun.
“Let me in then,” says Darren calmly, only the gun betraying that this is a command not a request.
“On your own?” he smirks.
“Yes,” stammers Hayden glancing towards the door to the cosy lounge where Mrs Pettigrew is dreaming the evening away.
Darren follows Hayden’s glance there and back. He raises his eyebrows ironically.
“Seriously Hay? I’ve been watching you. I know all about your little old lady.”
Before Hayden can respond he barges into the lounge and with the butt of the shotgun knocks Mrs Pettigrew over.
“No!” screams Hayden, but there’s nothing he can really do, except watch as the memorial urn, spills Mrs Pettigrew’s ashes onto the warm flagstones.
“You bastard”, he cries, clenching his fists, but feeling impotent.
Darren’s eyes blaze, reflecting the embers of the fireplace.
“I’m the bastard am I? After everything I did for you Hay, you left me to rot in that place. Have you any idea what my life was like after what I did to Drake?”
Hayden stammers, fearful for what lies ahead.
“I know, I know! You looked after me and I owe you, but…”
Suddenly he’s yelling at Darren.
“I should never have been there in the first place and you know it!”
Daren folds his arms then speaks:
“Memories aren’t the truth Hay; they’re just stories. If the future hasn’t happened yet and everything that has happened in the past doesn’t exist anymore, then there is only the present. All that’s true is that we’re here now, you and me and we are going to sort this once and for all.”
“But how?” says Hayden, wiping away tears.
“We’re blood brothers Hay,” Darren says matter-of-factly, “and this,” he fingers the vial around his neck, “is the proof.”
Hayden’s hand goes instinctively to his own vial.
“So what now?” asks Hayden quietly
“Thing is Hay, I killed a warden to escape. Don’t get me wrong, he was a dirty bastard, but I can never go back. This life is over for me, do you understand?”
There is a dangerous pause.
“And if it’s over for me – it’s over for you too,” he adds.
Hayden shakes his head, but says nothing.
“Don’t make this difficult Hay. I’ve got it all worked out.” He pulls out a zip-lock bag of medicine bottles.
“Propofol and Lidocaine. I used to sell them on the estates. I’ve no clue how much people take, but I want you to mix up a lethal dose. You’ve got syringes yeah?”
Hayden nods dumbly.
“And don’t balls it up Hay. We want to die with dignity, not end up as fucking vegetables on life support.”
“And if I won’t?”
“Don’t piss about Hay. If you won’t, I’ll shoot you, then me and you know I’m not bluffing. Is that what you’d prefer?
Hayden locates two 50ml syringes and a mixing jug. He prepares the solution, hands shaking uncontrollably. He stares helplessly at Darren who’s becoming visible impatient.
“Can I have drink to steady my nerves?” he asks.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, go on then. I’ll have one too.”
“Whisky? I normally have one in the evening.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Large ones. No point in saving the bottle. No funny business mind.”
“It’s just in here,” says Hayden, walking to the utility room. “I’ll just wash the glass,” he calls back.
“Hurry up,” shouts Darren.
Hayden emerges with a tumbler half-full of whisky and the bottle.
“You have the glass,” he mumbles and takes a swig from the bottle before setting it down on the table. “Cheers,” he says ironically.
Darren eyes him quizzically. “Cheers,” he says in return. “Live fast, die young. We’re supermen Hay, living by our own rules.” So saying he drains his glass in a single gulp.
With a steadier hand, Hayden prepares the syringes and hands one to Darren.
“Are you done yet?” slurs Darren. “I’ll die of old age at this rate.”
Hayden eyes him carefully.
“If I give you too much you’ll just throw it up, he says.”
“Whatever, doctor. Just let me know when it’s ready,” says Darren sleepily, resting his head on the table and closing his eyes, trying to fight the beckoning shadows of oblivion caused by the cocktail of whisky and sedatives coursing through his veins.
Suddenly Hayden is back in the present, threading and pulling the hide together with steel wire. It’s imperative to concentrate, but he can feel the cat’s cradle of his experiences unknotting; becoming clearer only to re-tangle and knot again. How is he meant to understand the reasons when they’ve had been washed away like footprints on a sea shore. There are some things that even the nimblest fingers cannot repair; some damage that runs too deep; some cuts that will never heal.
He banishes these thoughts and concentrates on lifting his stuffed masterpiece into the window display. It sways as he screws the feet into their brackets before becoming rigid. He pushes the hunting spear into the mahogany coloured right hand, gluing the handle to the floor for extra stability. Finally he adjusts the loincloth and places the description card at the figure’s feet.
“Pygmy tribesman – Rwanda 1931”
He goes outside to check the view from the pavement. His heart skips a beat. The face, screwed into a rictus, radiates anger at the world; an anger that has been unmercifully brought to bear through the tip of the spear. Now is the first time he’s really dared look into those glass eyes. To passers-by they are not windows into the figure’s soul, just dramatic portals into an imagined world of African exotica. But to Hayden, the likeness is unnerving. It is Darren. Not the Darren he’s known, but his essence; immortal, perhaps not the superman he’d aspired to be, but captured like the buzzard in an endless pose of pure intent.
Hayden shuts up shop and goes into the living quarters. He stands in front of the mantelpiece and taking a scalpel from his pocket cuts the vial of blood from the chain around his neck. No more blood. Taking a dustpan and brush he sweeps up Mrs Pettigrew and puts her back in her urn so she can continue dreaming for both of them. Before placing her on the mantelpiece he hugs the urn tightly to his chest and remembers her part in his salvation.
‘It’s alright now dear,” her soothing voice echoes in his head. You’ll always be safe here, Hayden”
“Yes,” he repeats, fighting back tears of relief. “I’ll always be safe now”.
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