I’m ushered out with the last of them, the stragglers at the FreshNet Local. There’s me, two men in long, tailored jackets carrying cardboard caddies full of corked bottles, and a tall, burly woman with a dog food sack under each arm. The blokes look like the sort who made fun of my car at the golf course when I had my birthday party in the clubhouse last year, so I slow down and dip into the dark by the cashpoints. The apparatus trails behind me. The dog food lady bundles between the two men apologising insincerely and they part toward their cars, unfazed, exchanging a thumbs-up. The trolley boy hauls his long train of clattering aluminium and gives me a weak smile as he passes. I shuffle off toward my car. The apparatus tugs on my back as it shakes after me over the tarmac.
I didn’t buy anything from the supermarket, just browsed, so I eat a bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit that Maria’s left in the little compartment under the ashtray, but I pick out anything dubious like bits of coconut or mango slices. The men’s cars glide past, dark and expensive-looking. ‘Incurious’ Maria called me when I asked her why not buy just the cashews. I told her it’s probably ‘uncurious,’ actually, and anyway no I’m not, it’s fine to know what you like. She says I’m like my mum. She always criticises mum for her knitting, she says it’s just automatic, mechanical, and that mum doesn’t even know the name of that woman who comes and collects it every week, which I’m sure is untrue. Maria asked me, has mum never thought to find out where they’re going? Or to whom? She said for all mum knows this scheme she’s signed up to is outfitting some homegrown terrorist cell with hundreds of woolly hats, and for free, no less! I told Maria very funny ha-ha, also it’s not hundreds and, yes, if it were me I’d at least ask for a quid or two per. She said my mum isn’t an entrepreneur, she’s just bored, but that’s beside the point.
Uncurious? I said, I’m a historian, Maria—a trained historian—I have a degree in history. Curiosity is one of the basic tenets of historical research. She says I need a hobby, I said, well mum has a hobby and you’re not exactly keen on it and, anyway, I do have a hobby, I’m working on my history things on the internet. Maria says she’s seen no evidence of this work and accused me of just sitting in the study wanking while the boy’s at college and she’s out working night and day, as she says, being the primary breadwinner.
I don’t wank in there. I have done, but I don’t do it habitually and I haven’t for a long time. You think I’m hiding something? I said to her, maybe you’re the one with something to hide. If I’m so uncurious would I be wondering where you were on Wednesday night, I pointed to my thumb; Thursday night, my index finger; and Friday night, my middle. Were you really at the cinema? Or helping mum cook her tea or whatever? I told her if she’s having an affair she’d better tell me and she said no, of course I’m not but what reason have I got not to? She told me later she was joking about that but when she looked at me at the time I could tell she was remembering before the apparatus when I was young and we first met at my weekend job where I worked on the till at the petrol station and I’d lean on the counter, affecting nonchalance, waiting for her to come in so I could slip her a packet of Rightmans and we’d go down the grass verge on my lunchbreak to get off with each other and smoke.
Maria doesn’t understand, it’s not that I’ve changed, it’s the apparatus that’s changed me, it’s prohibitive, it makes me hunched and bulky because I’ve got to feed all these tubes down my shirtsleeves. I can still get it up. What reason does she have not to? What reason do I have not to? This Amazonian here with the dog food sacks, she probably runs a boarding kennel or something, I could go lean on a lamppost near her, ask if she needs help with the bags she’s having absolutely no trouble lifting into the boot, like as a joke. Pretty certain she’d enjoy that. Probably wouldn’t say a word about the apparatus either because I’m handsomer than her and she’s freakishly tall so she’d definitely invite me back to hers if I wanted it. And what? What exactly, then? She rides me on the floor of a kennel while the casters under the tanks on the apparatus rattle against the concrete and spurious hairs stick to the sweat on my back; the cacophony of barking, the stink of dog piss running down the drainage canals by the walkway? I sink down in my seat and try not to make eye contact as her car trundles by.
So I’ve printed my research and left bits of it around the study. Various pictures, a Hadrian Denarius on the desk, for example. Evidence to keep Maria quiet. I was, initially, earnestly researching local archaeological sites because I’m interested in the transit of Roman coinage in our region, but the apparatus is constantly giving me grief and there are few notable finds, just endless pages about leathery nameless peasants that fell off in bogs fifty-thousand years ago. That’s how I found the museum. After clicking mindlessly through archaeological message-boards amongst various trifling sorts of private clay-pipe-and-beaker-collections I’d ended up somewhere different. The site was bold and plain, black on white, two lines and an email address:
THE HUMAN INFIRMITY MUSEUM:
A Collection That Attests the Inherent Vice of the Human.
I visited it several times over a week or so, always on the private setting. I tried to research around it but found basically nothing. Every time I typed the web address I envisioned a photo of the apparatus at the centre of the homepage. A tasteful picture: up-lit and professionally shot in an echoing marble arcade. There were a couple of lost hours in which I’d compulsively click refresh to get the heart-quickening flutter of anticipation that died when the page returned empty.
Eventually, I emailed. I had to explain, also, the nature of the apparatus. Much of it is homemade, I said, and it’s very unique. The curator wasn’t wordy, mainly yes and no and, thank you for your interest, if you’d like to make a donation. I told him about the redundancy package and the cash Maria gives me for counselling every week, but he said he’d prefer my bank details for a direct debit so I set one up and kept the counselling money in a lockbox in the garage. I half-concocted some lie to Maria about the direct-debit being a subscription service for research materials in case she checked the bank statement when it came in the post. She said well done. I said who’s wanking now, Maria? She told me to be careful with money, said we have the boy to worry about, we have to be able to support him. I said he should get a job and support himself, he’s basically an adult.
There’s a distant clang and I look up. The trolley boy, silhouetted against the supermarket lights, looses another string of rickety carts into the trolley pen. Me and him are the last half-living things in five hundred square yards. He rubs his hands together for warmth, slouches, and lets out a breath like industrial smoke. The supermarket lights snap off in automatic succession and with them, he vanishes.
When Maria asked what kind of job I said any kind of job. I said he’s lazy, Maria, he needs to understand he can’t just sit around and wait for things to come to him. Her eyebrows hit the ceiling and she said, I can’t believe—from you of all people? Which came out of nowhere. Last week she called me a ‘negligent parent’ because I failed to correctly acknowledge the boy’s haircut. At dinner she gave me this look across the table like say something about the haircut and don’t be a prick, so when I sighed and shrugged the boy said what? And I asked him what’s the haircut about? Maria put her fingers to her temples and moaned so I said what, Maria? I don’t get it, I don’t understand the haircut, it makes him look odd, it’s too complicated. He piped up, well if you think I’m so odd—which I did not say—then maybe that’s the effect of nominative determinism. When I grimaced at him he said you don’t know what that means, do you? I said yes I do and snorted and told him to shut up and eat his fucking omelette.
When I looked it up on the internet before bed I resolved to confront him the next night so I said, over dinner again, what exactly does the name ‘Clovis’ predetermine? He told me to leave it out. Maria chose the name anyway, family name she said. I agree with the boy, it’s an idiot name, sounds like an insurance firm. I told Clovis later that names don’t work like that. They don’t mean nothin’ ‘til you’re gone, I said, in a kind of cowboy voice, I’ve got the same name as my dad and thank Christ I didn’t end up like him. Maria laughed too much when I said that. I said, I mean dead, Maria, dead because of alcoholism, that’s funny to you? Dad was finally done in by his liver disease up a mountain in Sri Lanka, turned even his big red nose yellow. He died in the past, I always thought, bedridden in a colonial mansion in some tea plantation town like a syphilitic viscount. I told Maria this. She was reading a magazine and said I was taking a few too many poetic liberties.
Mum had him buried in the Anglican graveyard up there and didn’t even bother with a headstone here at home. I asked her at the memorial service if they’d named anything for him at the old hotel where he died and she said what do you mean? He’s a stranger to them, what would they name after him? I said I don’t know, anything, the fucking billiard table, it’s just a sign of respect, Mum. He left all that money to the church and didn’t even get a headstone and Megan was being cheap about the obituary because The Gazette charges per word, I said he raised us Megan, fork out twenty quid or whatever for fuck’s sake and she gave me the whole single-mother spiel again so I left it alone. Maria made me apologise to Megan and slip a couple of tenners into her coat pocket at The Miner’s Arms after the service. I pointed at my back where the frame of the apparatus poked out and tented the shoulders of my suit, then I bought her a half of stout and she nodded like she understood. I told mum about old Ken Louring who had the farm up the hill from our house. He didn’t do anything for what he got, I said, he lived with his mum until she died, by which point he was in his mid-fifties, then he sat on his ass watching the outbuildings rot under his negligence until he died too and when the property developers got hold of the land they named the whole estate after him.
I don’t get out to see mum much anymore because of the apparatus. I barely jammed it into the car tonight and had to sit and catch my breath after I’d spent five minutes collapsing the IV stand and shoving it into the passenger-side footwell. When I do go and see her Maria says I come back miserable because I just sit and watch her drink Bristol Cream and chain-smoke on the patio while we talk about how dad was a good man because he never let us go hungry. Maria told me to get out and see people, people that aren’t mum. I reminded her of last time, when we went to that pretentious dinner party at the Gibsons’ house and I was telling them the story about how Maria and me fell in love on the roof of the old hospital when she swung round a flagpole like an exotic dancer and we had sex and when I came I saw a dolphin swimming upstream in the river. She said, oh you didn’t! and I said I did, Maria, I did see one. She said I tell that story all the time and I act as if nothing’s happened since. She went on to tell them about a couple years ago when we went on holiday and I fell off the cruise-liner gangplank into Portsmouth Harbour. Everyone laughed. I fell because I’d tripped on a loose cable or something which had fallen off the apparatus. I didn’t say this to the Gibsons but I winced because I remembered how it weighed me down and how cold the water was. Maria pointed at me across the dinner table and said, look at his face, he’s still pissed off about it. At which they all laughed more and Donna Gibson shook so hard laughing that she almost choked on an olive pit and when I laughed at her husband Gary slapping her back and giving her the Heimlich Manoeuvre he said it was getting late and made us leave.
The streetlights have made an orange haze from the freezing mist that’s come down over the car park. I turn the heater on but it just moans and produces nothing so I slap at it. When I reach over to see if there’s air coming out of the windscreen vent, the padded back of the apparatus’s wrist support smudges the inside and I see that most of the fog is condensed breath.
Maria said she means it’s friends I should be seeing. Work friends for example, not our friends, by which she means her friends. I don’t see anyone from the old job anymore but I remembered Andrew Bagley’s been made redundant too. Or he’s off on sick leave at least because the chemicals from handling the binbags-and-such gave him a chronic skin condition and he has to wear little cotton gloves filled with aqueous cream so his hands don’t go raw. Andrew worked his way up from the factory floor to the sales team in the time I was there. I’d been in the office maybe three years since I’d finished my degree and he got the desk across from mine. I liked him well enough, he had that kind of old-fashioned sense of humour where he’d pick up a stapler and shout hello into it when the phone rang. He surpassed me really fast in the office but continued to call me boss even when he was signing his name at the bottom of a decidedly harsh annual performance review. I still don’t know if I liked that.
I’ve been chewing a brazil nut, which I hadn’t intended, so I spit the chalky, acrid pulp into my cupped hand and shake it into the footwell. I rub the drying paste against my thighs until it’s all gone then notice and scratch off an egg stain from the belly of my jumper.
Andrew was surprised when I rang him and laughed and said typical you, boss, when I told him I got his number from the phonebook. I went over. We talked. Not very much. He didn’t mention the apparatus and I didn’t mention his gloves. We drank tins of beer that I brought and then had some of his posh brandy and watched this old hard-boiled noir film. I hadn’t expected these affectations or him calling his wife sweetie when she asked him to turn the volume down, or his living-room to be dotted with chairs from the sixties and seventies which he assured me were somehow valuable so I wasn’t allowed to sit on them. I assume these are all things he’s adopted because of the redundancy pay-out. I came back drunk that night and brushed my moustache with a toothbrush so Maria didn’t know I’d smoked one of Andrew’s cigars. I scrubbed some toilet spray into my hands too and I think it had bleach in it and she still noticed anyway and told me she never liked Andrew then called me a dickhead the next morning for discolouring the hand-towels.
I had this awful hangover after Andrew’s. The drink really messed my head up. I couldn’t sleep properly for days. I had dreams where I was chased across unending ancient beanfields by stumbling, ale-drunk peasants who jeered relentlessly at the apparatus, took the piss out of how I clutched it when I ran. In others I followed leathery indigents into crude huts where they skipped and danced, their gristly bodies shuddered and their torn-off jaws were chewed by bloodhounds near the hearth fire. Each figure in turn would walk out, exhausted, and fall face-first into a bog from which another one rose and replaced them in the dance. They all looked the same and every one was silent. I woke up cold with a sweat-soaked neck, my skin in the blue light looked dark and withered like theirs. That’s when I got up and wrote the first draft of the proposal.
I don’t want to die like that, that’s what I emailed to the curator. I asked him to meet me but he was reluctant. I have a proposal, I said, and I’d like you to read it in person and sign it. I explained about the supermarket car park, how the shop closes at eleven but the car park shuts at twelve, I said all the words I assumed he’d want to hear: clandestine; private; unsuspecting. This seemed to make him more nervous so I told him straight that I can’t meet him at my house because of Maria and I genuinely couldn’t think of anywhere else so now I’m set on the idea. Finally, this afternoon, I said I’ll be there, tonight, with money, meet me.
I adjust the apparatus—loosen the screws at the elbow hinges—so I can get to the folder on the passenger seat and read over the proposal again:
Once again I’d like to commend you on your project […] what an honour it would be […] for posterity […] future generations [… etc. etc.]
This proposal states that complete ownership of the apparatus will be attributed to The Human Infirmity Museum upon the donor’s death as stated in the will—photocopy attached—subsequent to the curator’s signing of the proposal.
And, integrally, Clauses Nine and Ten:
[…] upon signing and receipt of the cash lump-sum proffered by the donor [which is the smaller-than-expected amount that remains after the will-writing-fee of the counselling cash from the lockbox], the curator consents to the conditions stated in the following clause.
Clause Ten: The donor’s money, including this and all subsequent transactions, will be used to fund the construction and maintenance of a prominent display cabinet that will form a large section of the museum’s permanent exhibition. The text will appear as specified in Appendix Two.
I can see it now, written on a backlit acrylic at the end of a dark hall. I’ll be there, behind Maria, Clovis and the grandchildren, leading them, in spirit, through the exhibits. On the left, a false foot from the nineteenth century. On the right, a looped blue polypropylene rope hung from a section of barn-joist next to a suicide note. They’ll feel me. They’ll sense my ghost, possibly smell me. My ghost might smell like me? Like ointments and surgical tubing, old ethanol like spilled tequila? Or would it smell more deathlike, like stale breath or compost? They’ll sniff at it and remember something pleasant just as they come upon my podium. See how he suffered, Maria will say, dewy-eyed, valiant smile, arm around Clovis’s waist. The grandkids would say wow and brave and things like that. The apparatus will have been rigged up to a rubber-me who’ll wave and smile wearily against the strain of its weight and they’d wave back and the rubber-me would cry and foam at the mouth like the Rood of Grace.
There’s a knock on my window so I wind it down. There’s a bite of cold.
“Are you the curator?” I say.
“You could say that,” he says, “but no, no I’m not.” He grins, all teeth, he’s here to rob me, I know it, so I stuff the proposal and the money into the glovebox and close my eyes, waiting for him to drag me out of the car and put his heel to my throat at which point I’ll will myself to swallow my tongue. If he takes the money at least he might leave the proposal. I hold my breath.
“I’m closing the gate soon,” he says, and when I exhale and turn to him he says, “Oi, don’t I recognise you?” I shake my head. “Yeah, I do, of course I do!” he thumbs his chest, “I’m Jim … Jimmy Crang.” He says, “we went to school together.”
When I don’t say anything he grabs the sides of his face and pulls the skin back taut to smooth out his wrinkles. His face looks plastic and his eyes bulge. “How about now?” He says in a strange voice, his cracked lips stretched against his teeth.
“I thought a robot closed the gate,” I say.
“Well, I’ve been called worse,” he says, chuckling, “How’ve you been? You used to go out with that Maria, right? She was a bit of a sort, eh?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just waiting here,” I say.
“Well, sorry, not anymore. Car park’s closed, mate. You’ll have to leave in a sec. How are you though, seriously? You look a bit pale.”
I tell him he’s mistaken, that we don’t know each other and I don’t know anyone by his name as I put the car in gear and pull away. Before I can get the window wound all the way back up I hear him call after me, “That’s typical you, pal.”
Ali Roberts is a North-Devon-born writer who currently lives in London. He has recently completed a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck. His fiction has appeared in the Mechanics institute Review and been shortlisted for the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers.
You can read Ali’s previously published words here:
This is How It’ll Go
Feature image by PavloFox from Pixabay
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