by Jez Conolly
Enter the gruesome, grainy 1970s world of Reginald Halliday, the septuagenarian ‘retired’ serial killer who has turned his ‘skill set’ into a small business….
It is the same dream: he is sitting on the brink at the top of the tall industrial chimney stack. One hundred and fifty-six feet up in the air. He sees his hands gripping onto the edge of the brickwork, knuckles blanched, his bare feet hanging over the inner lip of the stack, toes pointing down towards the dark drop. He cannot look behind him, at the world, the world of smoke and slow strangulation. His world is the perpendicular dive into the chasm below. He is both boy and man concurrently, simultaneously innocent, and guilty. This is both Crossley’s foundry and Bartle’s foundry. Northowram and Notting Hill. West Yorkshire, West London, top and tail, one and the same, all of it, always the inexorable plummet of youth and experience. He is breathing in soot. Hot, black air. Just like the mustard gas in nineteen eighteen, depriving him of a voice, denying him the ability to cry out. Nobody can help him. The acrid, nauseating stench is drawing him down. His fingernails dig into the brick but find no purchase. He trembles, and then, in the space of a thick, dark breath, he is resigned. It is time. Shadow hoods his head. Feet first, arms snapped tight to his sides, like a human cannonball propelled the wrong way down the barrel by both gravity and inevitability. He does not recognise the exact moment when he falls. It is the blink of an eye, and it is forever. He experiences the fatal thrill, the absolute final seconds, knowing that in another breath he will reach the bottom of the stack, his body entirely obliterated in a sickening thud, his very matter converted in a violent instance, solid to liquid. He is prepared for the end, the drop that is happening and its terrible consequence. Yet the fall continues for longer than he expects. In his mind, he has already performed a rudimentary calculation to determine approximately how long his body will take to reach the end of its rapid descent. The warm rush goes on and on. Down, down, down, a sooty Alice rocketing down the rabbit hole. Curiously, he did not anticipate confusion. He senses rising panic at the lack of an ending. And yet when the impact finally arrives it is completely without discomfort. It is almost pleasant. What feels like many branches gently and ever-so gradually cushion his fall in a long, continual embrace. Slower, slower, slower. Outstretched, cradling, eventually the branches catch him and entirely arrest his motion. Against the odds, he continues to exist. He is held by the branches. Supported. No: restrained. Once stable, he is able to extend his arms out into the darkness, his feet suspended. There is no light. His hands touch that which saved him. These many branches. They have caught him, but now, he somehow senses that, in among the twine of their cold caress, they are also pointing at him accusingly. And then he knows: these branches are not branches. They are bones. Hundreds of human bones.
Just before first light, the day began at the bitter end of that dull cul-de-sac with the sight and sound of an inquisitive cat being completely squashed and killed under the single front wheel of a Unigate milk float. It must have been the prospect of cream on board that attracted it. Having placed two bottles of silver top on the doorstep of number ten Bartle Place, the milkman had completed precisely half of his one hundred and eighty degrees turn to exit this dead-end street when it happened. Unbeknown to him, the tyre of the float ploughed squarely and surely through the creature’s head, eliciting an audible squirt of brain substance that took paths of least resistance through the holes that had previously been eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Left behind was a slow skid tread-mark mush of instantly indistinguishable meal. The remains of the poor creature’s body continued to twitch until the vehicle’s brake lights flashed in the distance as it stopped at the junction with St. Mark’s Road. A few moments after the float chinked and rattled round the corner, the pugnacious tousle of an opportunistic blue tit swooped tauntingly low over the now-still remnants of the mashed cat and touched down on the top of one of the bottles of milk outside number ten, eager to peck at the foil.
The day before, Sunday, Halloween as it happens, the thirty first of October, Nineteen Seventy One, an explosive device planted by the IRA’s Kilburn Battalion (or perhaps it was the Angry Brigade, feel free to choose your favoured perpetrator, the outcome was the same) tore through the upper parts of the General Post Office Tower, detonating at half past four in the morning, disabling the revolving restaurant and destroying the viewing platform. Fitzrovia shook. Dust settled. Journalists took to their typewriters. News cameramen turned up and captured the hole blown out of the top of the tower and the debris that converted the surrounding streets into a scrapyard. Constables kept concerned onlookers back behind the perimeter tape while the clean up and investigation commenced. Unlike the cat-death micro-scenario of Bartle Place, there were thankfully no fatalities at the site of the tower explosion. In that nowhere part of Notting Hill, four miles to the west of the tower, the sound of the blast barely registered. Most people were asleep. They’d wake soon enough and start to go about their day, learning of the bombing through the news bulletins on their transistor radios as they set about their egg bacon sausage, the reports on their televisions as they prepared their Sunday meat and two veg, the front pages of their evening newspapers as they drank their first pint of best bitter. There it was: the dead cat, and there they were, so many tits with a thirst for milk.
A whole day later, seven o’clock came and went on the first morning of the month. All Saints Day. Monday. November the first. A world away from all of the hollowed-out root vegetable heads filled with candles and placed on windowsills that had polluted the previous evening. There had been no flickering taproot in the front window of number ten. Partly because the unsaintly Mr. Reginald Halliday, the man who lived alone, to all intents and purposes, in that narrow, soot-caked, dark brick terrace house, hated vegetables. But mainly because he hated people. Without exception. He even found time to hate himself. In fact, he hated just about everyone and everything. It can be said that he was utterly unprejudiced and downright egalitarian in his loathing. People where little more than protein and profit to him. He did not doubt that, among his limited network of associates, this hatred was almost entirely mutual, but unlike them he always considered that there was a practicality and purpose to his own detestation of the whole of humankind.
Bad weather tended to cheer him up. October had graced him with its thick dead cloud and repeated saturations, but that was about to come to an end. This morning, when dawn broke over the freshly killed feline, a first radiance of cool autumnal sunrise penetrated number ten’s back bedroom window, infusing the sheets of Evening Standard stuck to the panes of glass with a rich orange glow. The faded stories on the pages were reduced to a grid migraine of halftone images and justified text blocks; Idi Amin, the Viet Cong, Ulster, the Common Market, speculation as to the identity of the Necktie Murderer. All yesterday’s news. In the here and now, the window frame rattled with the passing of a commuter train on the nearby Circle Line track as it slowed up towards Ladbroke Grove. The mass of Monday morning individuals, shuttled, shuffling, all of those miserable revolting people, all of those tired haunted bodies, bonded coagulations of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, beginning their day, alighting, disembarking, the herd having to be told repeatedly to mind the doors. The shit of Man.
The newsprint-filtered sunlight rapidly diffused to a bright and rosy bloom, and for the only time during the day, the dated floral bedroom wallpaper took on a variegated splendour, with quite brilliant dabs and vivid stings of madder and malachite. Nestling below all this Renaissance nonsense, you might imagine the room’s sole inhabitant as the cherubic subject of a Sandro Botticelli painting, fat-cheeked and ripe pink as a recently smacked baby’s bottom, stirring and waking and breathing in the world as though for the first time. Except in this room, rather than the fondant synaesthesia suggested by those grand canvasses, a sour and savage fust of unwashed bedding, unwashed socks, unwashed pants, unwashed man hung in the air, was the air, solid with the inescapable throat-catch of a neglected tannery. Less baby’s bottom, more old man’s arse. Halliday lay there in his rank pit like the remains of a scoliotic king coiled up under a council car park; ancient, more or less in bits and likely to remain in his current position for several centuries until somebody comes along with a drill.
The eight o’clock reveille of the alarm clock on the bedside cabinet provided the unkind catalyst that led to his staggered disinterment. That which began as a sharp attack upon the ears petered very gradually to a dry distorted throttle of a peal. Nevertheless, its defibrillation resulted in the stiff and sudden emergence of a hand from under the sheets and resolved as a swift and well-practiced swipe at the clock. This sent it hurtling off the cabinet and slamming into the far wall, hard enough to leave a mark in the verdant wallpaper. Or rather, another mark. The alarm bells finally fell silent, their daily struggle now over. With the muscle memory of a fisherman, he caught hold of the line of string lassoed around the body of the clock and wound the offending projectile back towards him. Reeled in, it was put back in position most precisely, ready for tomorrow morning’s swat.
A place for everything and everything in its place. Halliday’s world – this clock, this cabinet, this bed, this room, this inconspicuous cul-de-sac house and the eight feet of walled yard round the back of it – was a Jackson Pollock canvas on which every splash and drip had been carefully catalogued; to the untrained eye the bedroom was an unruly jumble sale of random accumulation, and yet within the chaos there was a beggar’s taxonomy that enabled him to reach out and confidently put his hand on this or that item as required. By this method he was able to plant the two ball feet of the swatted clock directly into the matching dimples left by their weight in the square of cloth on top of the cabinet, much as the lunar module had come to land on a sixpence in the Sea of Tranquility. Which is only right and proper, because people still had pounds, shillings and pence in their pockets and purses when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the surface of the Moon. Halliday always thought there was something deeply prosaic about decimalisation. As far as he was concerned, it was most definitely not one giant leap for mankind.
Behind the clock, lined up in a neat row where the back edge of the cabinet met the wall, sat several little glass pots, all the same size, each with a screw lid, containing a systematically curated selection of his own personal sedimentary debris. Geology meets biology. Each pot stuck up with an earth-toned core sample arranged from light to dark; the sad and curly ivory of his toenail clippings, the milky tapioca of his various pustule lesions, the scrambled egg septic poison carefully distilled from his cyst, the frankincense crumble of rheum from his eye corners, the eau-de-nil curd of his accumulated phlegm, the grape-green sputum of his recent bout of bronchitis, the excavated ginger-cake of his ear wax, the dark, stinky pads of his discharge-compacted navel fluff. Waste not, want not. Best not to linger on the want.
Another source of stinky fluff in the room, a rather large old retainer teddy bear who went by the name of ‘Gilbert’ (specifically the French pronunciation ‘Gilles-bear’, Halliday was most particular about this), rolled off his chest as he began to stir, momentarily a corrupted Madonna and Child, falling away from the withered teat within the hot tight nook and coming to rest sunny side up in the grey-with-grease hollow made by Halliday’s head in the pillow. Warm and pasty and yeasty as a loaf of cheap fresh bread, the bear’s body bore a blot pattern of heterogenous tracklements; toffee-clots of blood-spittle, caked on duck webs and slick trails of nasal expulsions, and between its legs a thick bevelled cavity starched by years of sticky intimacy. Its ears, nibbled to a hard bald leather, opened like rotten petals having been pressed hard all night against his master’s udder. Its one remaining blind eye, an amber bead embedded in a once-fleecy socket, turned to cyclops at the sistine of the bedroom ceiling. The prescribed articulation of its limbs long now ‘loved’ into a soft and random dandle of sponge appendages.
For about a minute Halliday sat semi-conscious on the edge of his mattress, the shrivelled beans of his toes hovering an inch above a corresponding bald patch of carpet. Instinctively he raised his right hand slowly towards his head, his thumb, index and middle fingertips forming a soft pinch signum crucis initiation that bypassed his brow and settled instead on a psoriatic plaque the size of a Victorian penny just above and behind his left ear. With the dexterity of a locksmith moonlighting as a dermatologist, he carefully picked at it until he was able to peel off a single circular scab. He briefly held the wafer-thin flake of skin up to the light. This is my body. He sucked at its frayed circumference for a moment, deriving some kind of pleasurable flavour, mumbled an ‘mmm’, then, with the delicate precision of an ardent philatelist, he placed it inside a small Manila envelope that he kept propped between bed and cabinet, a new addition to his private collection of flat dried pellicles.
Halliday could think of no finer way to start his day than with this small act of homespun transubstantiation, although perhaps the term ‘think’ is something of a stretch, given that the organ responsible for marshalling his critical faculties was at this moment slopping around inside his skull like a generous serving of soup in need of a little reconstitution. A ritual mantra was required to initiate the thickening of his cerebral consommé, and so, as was his wont most mornings, he clapped his way through one of his favourite childhood playground rhymes, ‘Two Little Sausages Frying in a Pan’, complete with accompanying hand movements: a repeating combination of hands slapping down hard onto his thighs, then together in a crack of prayer, then held in mid air for the benefit of his absent clapping partner. When he was a little boy the girls had let him play with them. That is how he learned. Hard to believe that this cankerous septuagenarian degenerate had ever been a child. The passages and playgrounds of Boothtown once rang with song. Without a doubt his happiest time. He had a voice back then. He didn’t anymore. Now it was little more than an attenuated whisper, coiling like grey smoke around the words, a shaped escape of air from his lungs, untroubled by teeth, his violaceous lips alternately rubber-slackened then pulled into a tight mean gurn.
As soon as a little more of his blood had made its pedestrian way up towards his head, Halliday came to sufficiently to propel his antiquated bones into a tent frame attempt at rising from the bed, a procedure accompanied by a quick-fire medley of show tunes from the chronic pain song book. Once perpendicular, he weaselled his way through the disjecta membra strewn like land mines across the floor around his bed. Every stagnant sock, every rancid knicker, every crumpled ball of custard-yellow paper tissue stiffened into still life by some ancient, conjured fluid of his. Each such item now a strategically positioned coordinate in his daybreak schematic.
The pre-breakfast exercise routine that he had adopted consisted of a single slow painful Y-shaped upper limb stretch, Christ left to rot on the cross, his arms aloft enacting a victorious torture, accompanied by a greatest hits album of creaves and clicks courtesy of his irredeemably knurled joints. He lowered his hands slowly, the left forming a fist that fitted into the cleft above his hip, the right bunching into a relaxed claw that took hold of the soft and generous aggregate of genitalia nestling inside his underpants. Frozen in this posture for several seconds, save for the rhythmic palpation of his fingertips around the globular massing of his privates, he eventually turned his head towards the window for the next part of his morning limber. This consisted of a sequence of facial contortions, mainly the repeated dropping and chupping of his toothless lower jaw to achieve a doldrum gape, and the lethargic rolling of his eyes, which at this moment traced the perimeter of a spider’s web, spun across the inside of one windowpane. In the nexus of the web dangled the spider’s larder, a dust-laden entombment of dry dead fly husks that twitched whenever the eight-legged bon vivant, brown-black and round as a peppercorn, took to scaling the apparatus of its capture spiral. Halliday stared at the spider, his mouth open, catching flies, the flies that were attracted to the putrid euthanasia of his knickers, the same flies that wound up as pendent desiccations in the spider’s trophy cabinet. Symbiosis, right there.
A generous scrat and fiddle at his hangdog rump later and he was on the move again, the hard skin of the soles of his feet, rough and ink dirty as a newsagent’s fingertips, scuffing across the carpet path and out towards the smallest room. The doorknob to the WC fought back when he tried to turn it, as it did every day, and a brief, familiar tussle ensued as his weak feint-parry-riposte led eventually, after much dislocated rattle and disgruntlement, to the door opening. Immediately a pungent aroma wrung at his throat, rising in vinegar plumes from the bare floorboards that had born the brunt of decades of his spatter. He knew to switch from nasal to shallow mouth-breathing at this point to spare himself the worst of the stink, although this didn’t stop it making his gums itch.
“Me teesh” he mouthed. Thought and words met, leading his lips to alternate between embouchure and the darkened pucker of a dog’s anus. He orchestrated the removal of his two sets of dentures from their glass tumbler on the shelf above the wash basin, showing the rows of pegs a dash of bristles from his nail brush with the vigour of a squaddie buffing the toes of his service shoes, then diddled them under the hot tap momentarily before pressing them into his mouth with a moist clat. A quick grit rictus into the shaving mirror. Christ All bloody Mighty. That face. Seventy-two years of it. He couldn’t remember the last time it had managed a genuine smile. Nineteen forty seven perhaps, that time he had watched as a small child was run over and killed by a motor car. He almost broke into a chuckle on that occasion, rotten individual that he was. His facial muscles had seen so little use other than in the rote joyless ventriloquial service of rumination that his long countenance had come to resemble the slow disappearance of a liturgical candle, pallidly opaque as the dull gloss of beeswax, peculiarly unlined through pure lack of expression, certainly no thanks to a festering portrait in the attic, but slipping south in a slow drawn melt off the skull, skin and features folding into a long-forgotten bottom drawer full of useless objects, entirely failing to invite even the most casual rummage. Up top, despite a healthy life-long hat habit, his planet of a pate had developed the trademark leopardskin-spotting of age combined with the aforementioned scabrous complaint. This had not been helped by his propensity to excavate the epidermis, fingernails, nail files, pen knives, the ensuing chaff either silently silt-pilfered into a pot for safekeeping or, if piece size served, consumed as a snacking palmful.
For no obvious reason, least of all privacy, he bothered to close the door behind him before he took to the throne, then with matching gunshots from his knees he dropped his drawers and collapsed in a cold pile on the lavatory seat. His view south was that of a scavenging raptor overlooking a dry precipice; pale crags descending to a sad crumble and thick sprigs of scrub, and a throng of small, dumb animals down below, their soft bodies teetering on the verge of a ravine. Also in early plunge were the venous protrusions that ran around his back passage, resolving as a rumpled trim of dark, mottled sultanas, the source of a discomfort to which he was utterly inured. His dear departed mother had a candid turn of phrase: ‘expect pain, my lad.’
He thumbed the club of his tassel between the semi-splay of his spindly upper thighs, letting the crown come to rest on the inner rim of the loo seat wood. My goodness, this seat had seen some action over the years. Its hinges grit-ground with a crusty oxidation as red as Wedgwood Benn, the result of half a lifetime of Halliday’s misdirected wee-wee. In fact, the only times the rust would come away was when he peed upon it. And then there was the limescale. The casehardened accumulation around the rim and below the waterline was thick enough to hide the fossil record from even the most tenacious of palaeontologists. Once in a while, but only when there was an ‘r’ in the month, he would have a half-hearted stab at it with the toilet brush, a meagre bristle that he had bought in a set with the nail brush during the early nineteen sixties from a travelling salesman, which did little to halt the rampant march of calcification. Occasionally a chunk would break away of its own volition, like a fragment of ancient masonry raining down from Michelangelo’s heavenly dome within St. Peter’s Basilica and randomly braining the frocked and the faithful.
His piss-water took a considerable amount of coaxing; for a full minute he thought hard about high pressure hose pipes and, in an uncharacteristic flash of advanced theatricality, sylvan tributaries freshly swollen with the icy wetness of rainfall following a cloudburst. Throughout these moist imaginings he whistled a shrill descending tone between his front dentures and tugged repeatedly at the sprout of coarse hairs around the top of his bum cleft. Eventually, when this technique failed to wring the fluid from his bladder, he gave up and reached over to turn on the wash basin cold tap in order to achieve a suitably provocative trickle.
“Let’s cut to the chase” he hissed, unblinking at the tap stream. That did it. When the frisson finally gripped, he micturated with all the torrential niagrification of a diuretically enhanced racehorse. And then his party piece; expertly, mid-pee, he dropped a single fat, round elephantine dung-stool into the channel below and wouldn’t you know, it was just like the Möhne Dam all over again and about accomplished enough to make Barnes Wallace bounce in his grave. As the thick dollop plummeted underwater, with the widdle still gushing, the thin squeak of a foot-long fart crept out. Quite the pathetic excuse-me it was, a report of which he was not proud. It’s quite something when you feel the need to apologise in the presence of nobody, but this shameful reed in the wind practically demanded an expression of regret. He knew he could do better; only last Thursday he had been perusing the dog-eared novels at the rear of War on Want when, involuntarily, a payload of anti-personnel ordnance dropped from his backside, as emphatically audible as a sack-load of hobnail boots emptied down a mine shaft. What was it about the back rooms of charity shops that make him break wind? On that occasion he had in fact followed through, requiring a hasty repair to the local park toilets. But for this unfortunate trouser accident he could have picked up a mint first edition of the book by William Frost on poltergeists.
Following the simple pleasures of his simultaneous number one and number two, the urge for a ‘number three’ overcame him. In a single deft and well-practised manoeuvre, he reached round the back of the cistern and extricated a see-through plastic bag that contained a ring binder full of polythene sleeves, each one holding a heavily curated omnibus of the most appalling hard core pornographic images. You really don’t want to know, but seen as you ask, there were amputee stumps and dwarves and cigarette burns and poor unfortunate chickens and an international melting pot of victims and their sore, substantial tripes extruded and lolling. In a state of crumpled glee, he ran his thumb around the tip of his tongue, collecting enough spittle to slicken his index fingertip, then leafed through the offending folder.
He soon settled on the pages that would be the focus of his attention; an idiot cubist collage of ‘butcher’s shop window’ images, mostly featuring quite mature overweight ladies, dark papillomatous dots punctuating their torsos and a full complement of pubic hair as thick as an otter’s pelt, unenthusiastically entertaining a variety of household objects d’art, kitchen utensils and assorted fruit inserted into an available orifice. As was his regular practice, he placed the opened folder at his dirty feet, big toes pigeoned to hold the page corners down, then put the clear plastic bag over his head so as to add a little autoerotic asphyxiation to the mix. Soon his soft-focus view of the vile bodies through the cloudy plastic began to swim, slowly at first then quickening to a hectic zoetrope of flesh as the oxygen levels in his brain began to run out.
Sitting there, face rapidly beetrooting inside the bag, and otherwise naked apart from the rind of stinkpaste underwear around his ankles, he wrung out a strangled song on his man-trumpet, the engorged head gradually glooming under pressure to an ominously deep and shiny violet. His measly triceps began to complain once the fitful strokes ran over half a minute, but before too long a large opalescent glue-bead dropped languidly onto the scorched earth of his gusset. Removing the bag from his head, he wheezed in some stagnant air and watched with toymaker fascination as the thick glob of ejaculate soaked slowly into the fetid pleat of Airtex, temporarily turning the atlas of his skid marks a darker black. He pinched the last gumdrop of fluid from the rapidly wizening William of his windfall apple, then, without really thinking too much about it, he wiped his sticky feelers clean and dry on the convenience of his chest hairs, much as a hungry man might deftly soil a napkin with grease and gravy after picking enthusiastically at a chicken dinner.
His appetite for sheer unadulterated filth now sated, and his scrapbook of fleshy horrors bagged up and tucked back neatly behind the cistern, he returned to the murder scene of his bare bottom, wiping and gouging and twisting and scraping at it with a leaf from the Yellow Pages, as an artist might clean his brushes with an oily rag. The torn-out sheets were suspended from a hook that Halliday had screwed into the wall and had been diligently kept in page number order. He had been steadily working his way through the alphabet, from abattoirs to zoos, and today, letting his fingers do the walking, he had reached ‘Cemeteries and Crematoria’. As he rubbed several inches of telephone numbers into the droop chitterlings of his sphincter, some mental arithmetic led him to believe that at his current rate of usage, give or take the occasional day of constipation, balanced out by the odd bout of diarrhoea, this phone book would keep him in wipes until Easter Nineteen Eighty, should he happen to live that long.
Upon his resurrection, with a weak yank of the Victorian pull chain, he flushed away the result of his morning ablutions, watching closely to ensure that the outcome turtled successfully down the maelstrom, while noting that the turd that he had just passed had failed to ‘wipe its feet’ on the enamel of the bowl. Any satisfaction derived from scoring a bullseye that had succeeded in not touching the sides was matched by the disappointment of failing to have any adherent feculence to dislodge with a spritz of his urine on a future visit. C’est la vie.
This being the first day of the month, he stepped out of his soiled and blotted undergarments, taking a moment to loop a big toe through one leg hole and, with a single practiced goose step, fling them into the wicker laundry basket to the right of the toilet door. This creature of habit would be picking them out and putting them on again on the first day of Advent. He’d be donning his other pair later in the day, but for now it felt good to get some air to his bagpipes. He stood and took a moment to steady himself; rising rapidly from the toilet had left him seeing stars, and the draught from the ill-fitting window cut across his kidneys like knives, which did his chronic fibrositis no favours whatsoever. Now risen, his naked, distended testicles, mere inches above his knees, hanging and swinging like the heads of two pickled foetuses jarred up on the shelves of a black museum, he scooped up his faculties like an armful of kindling and pressed on with his morning, knowing that his first customer was due to arrive in about an hour. This meant that he had enough time for breakfast, by some distance his favourite meal of the day.
The patter familiar of his feet took him along the landing, down narrow, steep stairs pathed with shiny deathtrap linoleum, then a sharp hairpin turn back along a long, thin hallway to a real end-of-the-world pantry kitchen. The décor in the kitchen was part Mid Century Modern, part Fingal’s Cave; dated utilitarianism yet with something of the Palaeocene about it. The floor and every work surface had accumulated numerous uneven stalagmites of dirty plates. Around and between every pile the world’s population of bacteria had assembled for a standing summit. So teaming was it with microorganisms that you could almost pause and watch them arbitrarily moving the crumbs around. In corners lay the dried-up residue of dead mice snapped and almost decapitated in traps then gnawed at by a living family member, Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ in bloody, grotty microcosm, an assortment of droppings scattered around the tableaux morts in solemn, silent attendance. On top of the refrigerator there was a portable television, the square bulge surveillance of its one grey vitrified barium glass eye peering down on Halliday as he shuffled into the room. its channel buttons – ITV worn smooth, BBC Two gathering dust – betrayed his proletarian viewing habits, its white casing coloured off to a drab cream by age and muck and the ambient grease that sopped everything in the room. The far wall accommodated a small, waist-height, double-doored cupboard, which in a grander house might pass to the uninitiated as a dumb waiter, although in this house its use was less obvious, but like the buttons on the television, the smoothness of the knobs suggested excessive use.
He glanced at the cooker, the scene of many a sacrificial incineration judging by the begrimed surfaces and the play of fat and smoke up the wall behind it. Occupying the majority of its hob was a colossal and patently very well used stainless steel cooking pot, a pair of similarly oversized metal tongs hung on its lip. Edging on to the one remaining ring was a cast iron frying pan, heavy as a murder weapon, unfathomably blackened and coated with the granulated grease of posterity. Like a block cinder, the stove in dormant state seemed to draw into it what little heat and light was in the room, a collapsing star consuming reality. It drew Halliday himself in, at least as near as the kitchen table. When his bare buttocks touched down on the little stool his scrotum spread slowly across the vinyl-covered seat pad like thick pancake batter poured into a hot pan. It formed a low-viscosity magma of flesh possessing the characteristics of recent roadkill. He looked down at this agglomeration of lumps and loose hide and began to salivate like a bull terrier being teased with a biscuit, so much so that after a few moments a treacly candle of involuntary drool dropped down onto the spread of nubbins between his legs.
Time for breakfast. Breakfast meant ‘nuggets’. This morning, and every morning for as far back as his memory served him. He possessed a deep, abiding love for his ‘nuggets’. A wrong love. They had been the founding tucker of his infancy, his first solids once he had been split at knifepoint from the nipple of his nan at the tender age of five. He lost his milk teeth to them, little duds that he collected at the time and now kept in a tiny purse made from kid leather which lay among the Crown Jewels of his private collection, in the locked drawer of his bedside cabinet, his own personal splinters of the true cross. How he loved to fry his ‘nuggets’, to listen to them pop and squeak as he nudged them around the charred macadam of his skillet, amusingly mimicking the high-pitched whines and screams of the slaughter moment. He always ate them dressed in a homicidal amount of cheap ketchup, wiping each one around the plate with an artistry matched only by the Manson Family’s interior decorator. He got up and approached the refrigerator, reaching into the tightly packed freezer compartment to retrieve today’s rations. The bag of ‘nuggets’ he brought out, frost-encrusted, hard as algebra, bore a September date and also a name: ‘Babs Milligan’. There was a reused jam jar on a shelf next to the cooker, marked ‘fat’. Halliday had made a habit of pouring this ‘fat’ back from his flying pan into the jar after every use, resulting in an emulsified homogenous clot speckled with hundreds of small, black bits, making the whole thing resemble a mucilaginous snow-globe of little deaths. He twisted it in his grip a few times to get a good look at the suspended flecks, some of which he figured could probably be dated back to wartime. Before he could even begin to fry up his frozen ‘nuggets’ the front doorbell rang. Less of a ring, more of a prolonged faulty scrape, and from the length of time that the flatulent rasp went on he knew it could only be Rita Rusk. Only Rita would leave her thick finger on the bell button that long. She was early.
“Shit the bed, have we?” Muttering to himself as he placed the jar of ‘fat’ back on the shelf, he wove across the kitchen, pulling on the Black Watch tartan gown hanging from a hook on the door. Looped on another hook hung a two-foot length of hairy string, tied at the end to a well-used pencil. He took the string loop from the hook and pushed it past the point of no return over the corona and around the stalk of his glans, then let the pencil dangle between and below his kneecaps. Unlike a typical butcher who likes to keep his pencil tucked conveniently out of the way behind his ear, Halliday favoured the arm’s length approach of this piece of cord, inspired as it was by the chained pens on the counter of his local post office, through which he posts his ‘dried goods’ orders out to customers. This particular pencil had some history. Inspired by Newton, who probed his own eye with a blunted bodkin in pursuit of the nature of colour, Halliday had once, on a whim, and in a moment of Enlightenment thinking, inserted the pencil down the shaft of his old man, purely to see how far it would go. He managed to get it in as far as the ferrule, leaving the smoothed pink tip of the eraser sticking out proud of his meatus, before he remembered that he needed the pencil that afternoon in order to write a letter to his sister. What a heartfelt missive that turned out to be. Admittedly by the time of his experiment he had whittled the pencil down to something of a stub before he jammed it down his John Thomas, it’s not as though he was anything like sufficiently well endowed to take the full shaft of a brand-new pencil that had not yet been shown the sharpener. Nevertheless, it was still long enough and went in far enough for him to think of himself as a certified Renaissance Man.
This being his first social interaction in several days with somebody other than himself, he prepared by clearing the various passages with an almighty bronchial whoop followed by a series of violent hawking manoeuvres that eventually produced an egg-yolk whelk of phlegm around his epiglottis. Or perhaps it was his larynx, or pharynx, or some other as-yet-uncategorised part of the respiratory system or oesophageal region that should probably end with ‘ynx’. Whatever, he spent a few moments wrestling for control of it, like Weissmuller’s Tarzan with a python as long as a tennis court, ruminated, then spat the chest mollusc several feet across the kitchen into the sink, the expectorated mouthful sliding down the sinkhole with all the languid grandeur of a narcoleptic slug.
As it happened, Rita reminded him of a slug. Her trunk blubber had accreted to form a thick carcass from which sprouted her limbs, similarly fattening into four tributes to carbohydrates. He was most familiar with her undressed proportions, not through some previous sweaty liaison, but due to Rita’s profligate openness about her many appearances in the pages of an amateur pornographic monthly publication a decade or so ago. With a distribution limited to the Greater London area, ‘Spuds’ magazine had catered for the lurid whims of male metropolitan over-forties, from dustbin men to city gents and everything in between, before being discontinued in nineteen sixty-one when the publisher had his head cut off during a gangland Night of the Long Knives. While ‘Spuds’ was still in print, Halliday had procured many copies from his local newsagent, proper under the counter job, brown paper bag and everything, no questions asked. One particular article featuring Rita, from February nineteen fifty-eight, titled ‘Soap Factory’, had caught his eye. He had squirrelled it away into his ‘special reserve’ collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, despite the dreadful floral headboard behind her in every shot. Even back then her thighs had resembled two vast buttered carrots, and in the years that followed she succumbed to endometriosis and surrendered to the couch potato lifestyle. Her body went and her head went, and as he pondered the warm mildewed wolds of her woolly mind he imagined her physical brain, that clod between her ears, a head full of hot cauliflower cheese put through a blender, and in that moment he tasted bile and my god he enjoyed it. To him at least, for all her vegetative disfigurement, Rita still possessed a certain animal magnetism. Probably something to do with excess pheromones and inadequate personal hygiene.
“Good morning, Mr. Halliday! How are you this morning?” The breezy pistachio grin that greeted him when he opened the door to her belied her general state of Pearly Queen stagnation. Before answering, he bent down to pick up the two bottles of tit-punctured milk from his front step, and in so doing he expressed a short involuntary quack from his hind quarters.
“Oh, excuse me! I think you’ve dropped something!” quipped Rita. Halliday, a little slow on the uptake, looked down at his feet for several seconds in case he had somehow accidentally shed some coins from his dressing gown pockets before, ironically, the penny dropped.
“My tummy’s been playing me up again.” He placed the two bottles on the very occasional hall table just behind him in the hallway, where they would happily cheese up in the coming days.
“You poor thing, if I’d known I could have fetched you some Milk of Magnesia from the chemist. I was there on Saturday to pick up something for my halitosis.”
There was irony in her heavy enunciation of that word, the aspirated aitch leading as it did to the toxic exhalation that assaulted Halliday’s face. At close quarters, her ‘hhh’ and the baring of her bottom teeth on the ‘sis’, the angry Guernica of her gum disease visible, brought Halliday to a rapid recoil. The very last thing he needed to settle his stomach. She handed him a slim piece of paper.
“I’m visiting my son Bob today and I promised to make him lunch. He’s a lovely boy my Bob. Lovely. Lovely. Very healthy appetite. But man cannot live by fruit and veg alone.”
Her opening exchange was followed by a croupy ‘ha-ha’ and another noxious billow of oral necrosis that entered Halliday’s olfactory midst like the stench from an overripe slurry pit. Given the broad spectrum malodorousness of his living conditions, you would think that nothing could conceivably repel this smelly old fellow, and yet here was something that topped anything that he could produce. We become inured to our own foetor, but this offers us little immunity to the noisome issuances of others. Holding his own breath for more seconds than was comfortable in an effort to spare himself the worst of this blast, he ran an eye down Rita’s shopping list, scraping a nail over his chin stubble, muttering his way through the items, mouthing the words with the hushed spit-crackle of a vagrant zealously consuming the obituary column in a library copy of a local newspaper.
“Did you hear about the latest bombing, Mr. Halliday. Bloody Aye Are Ray at it again. I think they should bring back hanging for the likes of them. Don’t you think they should? I think they should. It was a dark day for this country when they got rid of it…” At this, Halliday hastily returned the conversation back to Rita’s shopping list.
“I’m out of sausages, I’m afraid. There’s been a run on them, what with Guy Fawkes this week and people wanting hot dogs with their bonfires and rockets.”
“…hhhhh…” Rita’s extended sigh of displeasure caught him across his eyes, causing them to water involuntarily.
“Rissoles do you?”
“Go on then” said Rita with a sniff, “Bob calls them arse holes. Begging your pardon Mr. Halliday, but he’s got such a foul mouth on him. I mean, to look at him you wouldn’t think he’d say boo to a goose, but with a few pints down his neck he can swear like a sailor. Get him riled up and it’s all ‘cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt’. I mean, all that swearing. It’s fucking disgraceful is what it is. Anybody would think I dragged him up. He’s got a heart of gold underneath it all. A proper diamond in the rough he is. Have you met him, Mr. Halliday?”
“Course I have, you silly cow, he’s one of my suppliers.”
“Oh yes, of course he is, I was forgetting.” She reached up to pull the wad of pound notes out from under the top strap elastic of her double D right bra cup, but not before scratching urgently at the Vandyke of her armpit hair with the middle finger of her left hand, some kind of persistent, flaky red sweat rash requiring attention, then putting the same ready salted nail to work on her teeth, troweling off the plaque and absently distributing the crescent of lodged grout with the upward flick of her thumbnail. A very tiny bit of the yellow grey matter ended up on Halliday’s lower lip, and like a prison officer hiding a bribe, he unceremoniously brought it into the secrecy of his mouth with a single swipe of his tongue. He decided in the moment that, in isolation, it actually tasted quite nice. There was a hint of smoky bacon crisps about it. Or some kind of meat. He couldn’t quite decide.
“How’s your cyst these days?” she asked, clutching the roll of cash in her fist.
“She’s in the front bedroom, in the…”
“No, your cyst, not your sister. I know where your sister is…” She almost swallowed those last words, for fear he’d hear. Her eyes rolled up toward the window above.
“Oh, not too bad. It’s stopped weeping.” It hadn’t. Picking at the fresh crust was one of his regular evening pastimes. If it healed cleanly and completely, he’d have little to look forward to. When all was said and done, he had his multitude of pustules for company through the long and lonely nights, and this particular source of purulence had for quite some time been the gift that goes on giving. He said it had stopped weeping because he didn’t want to encourage Rita to start going on about her own various lumps. Sadly, he failed.
“I had the specialist at my breast again last week. He wants to run some more tests evidently. Had his cold fingers all over me he did, prodding away. I don’t know what he’s looking for, really, I don’t. Buried treasure Bob says. I’ve had more holes poked in me than you’ve had hot dinners, Mr Halliday, I don’t mind telling you. My left thruppenny bit looks like a bleedin’ crumpet.”
At this, Halliday immediately tried very hard not to think of melting butter. Well not that hard. In fact, he often thought about butter in relation to Rita. He really didn’t like to imagine her seized upon by the heaving frenzy of coital adventure, but sure as spittle was his lubricant, he couldn’t help but muse upon it, especially when in such close proximity to her gamy neglect. So much so that after about five minutes in her company, smelling her over-ripened plots and tracts and picturing the flapping, dripping wallop of her precarious sex act, he typically reached an involuntary semi-priapic state, which can lead to particularly awkward scenes when said organ pops up complete with a drawing implement dangling from it. Sensing the froth coagulation at his mouth corners, and slightly concerned that his rising tumescence, complete with its epithelial funk and avec crayon, might start to peep out from between the flaps of his loosely fastened dressing gown, he tried hard to glance upwards, away from her massive bust, up past the specks of black mascara marooned like the bodies of shipwrecked mariners on the shingle of her cheeks, up beyond the eye shadow, green as hospital cups and saucers, up to where her eyebrows weren’t. Her habitual over-plucking left her forehead as hairless and shiny as that of a burns victim. It’s hard to believe, but some people still put butter on a burn, and there he was thinking about butter all over again for Christ’s sake.
Rita deduced from the glassiness of his eyes and the moistened quiver of his lips that he was drifting off into one of his perverted reveries, and so she cleared her throat in the manner of a Morris Minor attempting a hill start in an effort to bring him back and focus his mind on her meat wants. Coughing over her right shoulder, she caught sight of the tragic pile-up of cat viscera glistening in the morning light.
“Is that one of yours?” Halliday followed the path of her gaze to the dark wet slipper of black fur and blood-pulp.
“No, no, no, no, no! I don’t give animals house room. Filthy creatures.” Pot kettle black. He spotted a loop of collar sprung back into shape amid the flattened mess and knew then that this was one of the street cats that he regularly took a swing at with his yard brush when sweeping his front step. He made a mental note to fetch that self same brush, and a shovel, and snap up the remains upon conclusion of this morning’s bit of business. The sight of the meat on the road outside his house brought him back to the matter in hand.
“What’s this? ‘Kidleys’? What are ‘kidleys’? Halliday squinted at this final item on Rita’s list.
“Kidleys. You know. What you put in steak and kidley pie. Bob loves a bit of steak and kidley pie.”
It’s kid-NEEES, you stupid woman – neees, neees, NEEES!”
“I’m not having any more of your knees Mr. Halliday, not after the last lot you sold me. Boiled them for four hours I did, and they were still as tough as old boots. Bob wouldn’t touch ‘em. I gave ‘em to the dog in the end, the poor little bastard.”
“Alright, alright, alright, I know what you mean.” He felt his eyelids slide with defeat in the face of the belligerent idiocy before him. With a last look down the list and a rattle of calculating tuts he totted up the total in his head, then extended a greasy palm in the direction of Rita’s wad. “Two pounds eight shillings and five pence, in old money. I’ll leave you to work it out.”
She slid some notes from the roll, fanned them out in her hand and scrutinised them like a Mississippi card sharp, eventually handing them over with a modicum of reluctance. Halliday snatched them with his free mitt, which he thrust into the pocket of his gown, taking an age to find her change. A small palaver then ensued; he reached and grasped and cursed, recalling the protracted antics of a cheap plumber fishing for a dropped wedding ring down a kitchen sink plug hole. When his claw re-emerged clutching some coinage, she snapped up the silver copper shrapnel that he offered her in the pudge of her left hand, gripping the coins tight enough to cause a temporary welt of the Queen’s head in the soft of her palm.
“Mrs. Rusk, dear: if you’d be so kind as to wait here while I go and get these items for you…” Despite the condescending lean of his appeal, he rather spat these words in her direction, bothering pointedly to fix her with a beady-eyed look that said, ‘stay put’. This was business. He didn’t much appreciate his customers prying beyond the entrance. Imagine a jeweller allowing his patrons the opportunity to reach around back and molest the gems. Also, he liked to think of his repugnant sty as the place where all the magic happens, and as every schoolboy knows, a magician never reveals his tricks. Especially how he performs the one involving cutting a lady in half. So, with a half-hearted attempt at mystical aplomb, he tailed off and turned. Despite Halliday’s attempt at establishing a line of demarcation, Rita still felt sufficiently emboldened to place one swollen trotter over the threshold to get a better look. She watched him shamble back along his hallway and take a turn out of sight. Next, she could hear the flick of a light switch and a grapple with a key in a lock, followed by the dry slap and scrape of bare heels and soles on a flight of cold stone steps leading down. Down. A surprisingly long way down.
Descending for an age into the thick murk, with probes for toes, the blunt lead of the trailing pencil catching the tipping point between each tread and riser behind him, he finally felt and recognised the last four steps, taking them carefully, one at a time, muttering to himself:
He kept his voice to a state of near silence, not that he could manage a great deal more than that. Still, it paid to be cautious; Rita might have entered a state of largely self-inflicted deterioration, but he knew from old that, against the odds, her hearing was still as sharp as a lemon. Although a swing-rope constellation of bald light bulbs lit the long deep space beneath his house with an anaemic twinkle, it still took Halliday’s ageing eyes a few more moments to get used to the gloom. Once accustomed, they shone with the dull patina of two tarnished brass buttons, good enough for him to just about find his way along this curious subterrane. He shuffled tentatively through the kind of narrow passageway one might consider built purely for harbouring all manner of Victorian monstrousness, with a low vaulted ceiling and walls of exposed brickwork and the metronomic drip-trickle echo of condensed moisture on percussion. Further down the passage, the block white congestion of a row of large industrial chest freezers was decreasingly visible, all of them electric humming with life, all of them plugged to the gunnels with death. Above these on a low shelf, among half-used pots of paint, brushes, rags, white spirit and other home decorating paraphernalia, sat a line of large Kilner jars. Just as orderly as the little pots on his bedside cabinet, each jar bore a carefully hand-written label to denote the contents, written in the same pencil lettering as the label on the jar of ‘fat’ in the kitchen:
Further on, beyond the chest freezers, was an approximation of a slaughterhouse’s preparation area. Here, looped on pegs, hung a number of items:
These dangled above a makeshift blood pit, comprising a shallow rectangular ceramic trough with a run-off groove heading in the direction of a metal grate at the end of the passage, practically beyond the reach of the last bulb’s illumination. To one side of this gathered a congregation of buckets, each containing various oddments of unusable leftovers: infants’ heads stripped of their eyes, cheeks and tongues, the grey-black folding slops of smokers’ lungs with the occasional trachea and larynx (or pharynx, or something ending in ‘ynx’) still attached, a buffet of toes and fingers that would never reach a plate (because Halliday’s customers didn’t take kindly to finding nails in their pack-up), the tattered, carved out interiors of geriatric female private parts, as curling and papery as the dried discarded insoles of shoes. The buckets surrounded a wooden workbench, hack-marked from massive usage, strewn with a loose commixture of small unresolved tidbits, its chopper grooves dark with the sacrament of old blood. G-clamped to one edge of it was a large hand-operated meat grinder, under which crouched a substantial ceramic bowl, ready to catch the chunky, red-marbled strands of nourishment that he would regularly hurdy-gurdy into existence. In an alcove corner behind this, there was a floorspace filled with a pile of burlap potato sack bundles, some of them tightly trussed, others less constrictively bound, one on top of the pile opened sufficiently at the neck to allow for the protrusion of a single bare foot, a size seven at a guess, probably female, incongruously jaunty with advanced rigor mortis. Immediately above the little hill of sacks, there was a square coal-black hole in the ceiling which, if you were to employ a chimney sweep’s climbing orphan to shin up it, you would discover led to the anonymous double-doored cupboard in the kitchen. Just to the left of the sack race, abutting a section of white-tiled wall, was a wash basin complete with a once-large bar of carbolic soap, a block of pink ruby now worn down in the middle like a centuries-old church step, its strong tarry odour serving to mask all manner of effluvia that would otherwise trouble the nostrils. Not that the smell of the dead bothered Halliday anymore. He was very well used to that. It was the active stink that came off the living that he struggled with, his knee-jerk lust for Rita Rusk’s secretions notwithstanding.
Next to this washing area, pressed up against the white tiles, was a large square wooden framework of deep compartments, some empty, most not so empty. Taken as a whole, the lattice of racks resembled an enormous, completed crossword puzzle; a division of black squares interrupting sequences of filled white squares, the contents of which spelt out something that was difficult to read in the available light. Halliday the puzzler had clearly spent a long time filling the squares and judging by the uniformity of items clustered inside each cavity, he had done so most systematically. It comes as no surprise that the man who curates his own personal bodily scree, with all the eye-watering diligence of an archivist at the Natural History Museum, should take this approach to the net result of his labours. Bones. Hundreds of human bones. An ossuary of evidence. A Dia de Los Meurtos display so fitting for this first full day of November. These bones were easily the cleanest objects in this underground chamber, having been blanched to a pale neutrality in Halliday’s big cooking pot over many many months, then lowered down in bags via his makeshift dumb waiter.
Halliday skulked then scuttled ahead semi-sideways, the arthritic crab in Autumn, running the print pad of his left index finger along the leading edges of three of the chest freezers, not unlike a judgmental mother-in-law checking for dust on a mantelpiece. He reached standstill under one of the light bulbs in order to recheck the piece of paper that Rita had given him. His capacity to memorise the location of each and every scrap and sundry in his junkyard of a house extended to his knowledge of the contents of these freezer units. He opened the top of the fourth freezer in the row and folded up the sleeve of his dressing gown as far as it would go. Like a vet with his entire upper limb deep inside a pregnant cow, he reached down repeatedly, right up to his armpit, feeling among the many bags of bits and pieces to find the various items on the list, not once needing to turn his head and look inside to see what he was doing. With everything on the list extricated, rissoles and all, he carefully wrapped each item up in separate sheets of Evening Standard, bagged them inside individual sealable plastic freezer pockets then packed these neatly and tightly into a reused Bejam carrier bag. Before returning upstairs with Rita’s victuals, he paused to uncoil a hose pipe attached to a tap protruding from the wall so that he could wash away some morsels that he had left congealing in the trough the day before. The small flotilla of pieces sailed along the run-off groove and disappeared down the grate at the end of the alleyway. Despite the thickening gloom in this below-stairs space, there seemed to be a very dim source of light bleeding out from the grid of holes in the grate. This was accompanied by a distant rumble of machinery. A train to be exact, the track leading up to Ladbroke Grove running beneath the tail ends of these cul-de-sac houses.
Halliday rewound the hose and turned back towards the bottom of the basement tomb-larder steps, Rita’s bag of frozen treats hanging by his side. He hovered for an instant and stopped his breath in order to listen; back at the end of the passage, emanating from far below the grate, he could just about hear the moist, repeating clack of quiet persistent mastication. He knew it wasn’t rats. Not that rats would have bothered him. Whatever, whoever, was feasting on his scraps in the depths beneath his house, he was not especially perturbed. Nothing much scared Mr. Reginald Halliday of number ten Bartle Place, except perhaps the idea of prolonged power cuts. Heaven help his business if that should ever happen. To quote Dante Alighieri, this be the realm of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellow men.
He ascended as rapidly as his own old bones would allow, so that he could get rid of the revolting Rita and return to that bag of delicious ‘nuggets’ he had left to slowly defrost in the kitchen. If only Rita realised that what stopped him from gassing her and converting her into rashers, chops and cutlets, the mealtime mainstays of his many other customers, was her very state of living physical decomposition. She was spoiled meat, and so she was allowed to live. Would Halliday himself eat her? He would if someone put a gun against his head. Or a noose around his neck. But thankfully he didn’t have to. He would never pull a bag out of his freezer with her name written on it. The good meat kept on coming, the food chain was sustainable. It just didn’t pay to think too much about where precisely he himself featured in that chain. He only needed to know that there was always somebody below him. There to break his fall.