Thursday, 4 April 2013

the gatekeepers of the afterlife.

I am the householder, I am the owner of this shelter. There was a previous resident but she is gone now. I buried her in the forest and it fair took it out of me. She was only ten years old. I didn’t want to kill her but in the end, one of us had to go. She seemed to be alright at first, very wise for her tender years, practical even, but she couldn’t keep the place clean and she spent a lot of time outside. She was drawing attention to us and I couldn’t take that risk. So one of us had to go, and it wasn’t going to be me.

My father was an eminent psychiatrist. You won’t have heard of him, but he was very well respected in his field, and he was away at conferences a lot. He also liked to play the stock market, and he was a drinker. So I mostly grew up with my mother and an au pair, but when I was ten my mother developed cancer. The end came pretty quickly. I mean really quickly, about six weeks. My father came home to make arrangements – he had a friend in Harley street, he sent her there, but it was apparent from the get go that she didn’t have long. He hired a nurse to care for her at home and then he was off again, but not before he had arranged to have me sent to a preparatory school on the Yorkshire moors. Deepvale. I was there for two years. I came home when I was informed that mother had days left. She hung on for a week and I watched her die. My father came to the funeral, said a few words, and then he was off again.

I finished at Deepvale. I didn’t have much a time there. My father wanted me to go to Eton but I failed the entrance examination. I don’t think that he could have afforded the fees anyway. He had lost rather a lot of money when the dot com bubble burst. And despite his connections at Harley street, he didn’t really know the right people. So instead, I was sent to Abbotsholme in Staffordshire. He looked at a list of minor public schools and he picked the most expensive. When school was out for the summer I used to stay with him and his new wife, a former mistress, in Genoa. He knew how to get the ladies, with his in depth knowledge of the mind. For Christmas we went to Chile. The lake district. Lots of fish. It’s summer at Christmas in Chile. The southern hemisphere, you see. I don’t know how he afforded it. He had almost given up his profession by then, he was seventy. I think that his new wife must have inherited something.

Back at school, I kept my head down, and I did very well. My father decided that I should study medicine, like him. So, after my A levels, I went to UCL. I continued to work hard. I got a double first and my father threw a party for me in Italy, but I didn’t make it because of the volcano going off in Iceland. Eyjafjallaj√∂kull. I used to think that I knew how to pronounce that but a Finn in a bar on the Tottenham Court Road told me that I was wrong and there was a fight. I lost the fight. That’s when the headaches began. After the Icelandic volcano and the party that never was my father didn’t speak to me for some time, but he kept paying my school fees and some maintenance. Then, after eleven months, he sent me a brief email asking how I was doing, and advising me to keep in touch.

Partly to spite him, I chose surgery for my speciality over psychiatry. I had seen in him how easy it was to manipulate people with a bit of in depth knowledge of the mind, and I didn’t want to be like that. I attended Imperial College for a four year MBBS programme, After a couple of years there was an invitation to Genoa for Christmas. My father wasn’t working, he wasn’t getting along with his new wife, there was talk of the affairs with younger women starting up again. They had separate rooms. He was drunk the whole time and there was an argument on Christmas night over my refusal to take up psychiatry. He had this idea that surgery would soon be done by robots and computers, and he was screaming at me that the future lay inside of people’s heads. He told me that he didn’t really want me in his house and that there was a shed about a mile way, in the grounds. He said that I could sleep there until I could arrange to get away. There were spiders. I didn’t know whether spiders in Italy were venomous, and I didn’t want to find out. I didn’t sleep much. I flew back Boxing day. I never saw him again.

I knuckled down, determined to confound my father and become a top surgeon and beat the robots and the computers at their own game. After the third year I was moved to a training position in Hackney. The Homerton. They had quite a big mental health unit there, it didn’t seem ironic. After six months the shit hit the fan. Whole groups of species were disappearing at an alarming rate. The welfare state was gone by then and the workload was incredible. Most of the hospitals were closing and I don’t know how we hung on for as long as we did. There were rumours that pop stars who lived abroad were keeping it afloat. Little by little the staff stopped coming in and we were reduced to a skeleton crew, I think that there were about ten of us left in the end. People sleeping and screaming and dying in the hallways, I was doing most of the scrubbing and cleaning all by myself, living there, sleeping in the chief psychiatrist’s residence – the mental health unit was deserted. I began to carry scalpels about my person at all times. My father’s vision of all surgery being done by robots and computers hadn’t come to pass. When it seemed as though I were the only one left, one morning after a night attempting to keep the one operating theatre left clean, administering fatal does of diamorphine to dying men, women and children, I telephoned out for a pizza, I went out into the hospital car park to meet the delivery boy. I waited for him to remove his crash helmet and then I went for him with a scalpel. I knew just where to cut and it was soon over for him. I took the pizza and the moped, some drugs and a change of clothes, and I headed out along Homerton high street and down Marsh Hill. I easily found the river Lee and I headed north. I kept on going until I ran out of fuel somewhere in Hertfordshire. I pushed the moped into a ditch and climbed over a fence onto a railway embankment. I looked across fields and I saw an old farmhouse in the near distance, with a thin column of smoke rising toward the sky, just to the side of it it. I crossed the railway tracks and I began to move toward the farmhouse.

It took me nearly an hour to get there and when I arrived my progress had been observed, and there were three or four people out by the gate to meet me. I didn’t much like the look of them but they looked a darn site better than most of the people at the hospital had done. They were very friendly and they invited me in and fed me. As we ate they got a little of my story out of me. When we had finished they told me that I must be tired and I agreed that I was, and then they showed me to an upstairs room where I could sleep. I did worry a little about rats, out there in the country, but I slept for about fourteen hours and then it was dawn and a new day.

They put me to work in the grounds, digging and tending vegetables, and at lunch we talked some more. I asked them what their plans for the place were and they didn’t seem to have any. Now that I had had a full nights sleep I could see that they weren’t keeping the place very clean. I didn’t say anything at first. I was just glad to be away from the city. It turned out that there were six of them in all, plus a baby. It didn’t seem to cry much and they asked me to look it over, and I had to explain to them that I was a trainee surgeon and not a pediatrician. They didn’t seem to be satisfied with my answer and they told me that I must know something about infants from my general training and I had to tell them again that no, I really didn’t. I told them that I could excise a diseased appendix but not even change a nappy, and that surely the mother must know more than me. They didn’t like that much either and I sensed that lunch was over and I went back out to work.

Things continued in this vein for about a week, working, eating, sleeping. I was becoming more and more conscious of their lack of even a basic level of hygiene. Pots and pans and plates were left unscrubbed in the sink for days, there was a kind of an impromptu washing line strung across the kitchen, drying smalls and half cleaned nappies that were supposed to be disposable and they never seemed to bathe. Work surfaces were covered with vegetable peelings and breadcrumbs, over which hung the dripping washing line. There was access to reasonably clean water from the river Lee, but when I spent an exhausting three hours ferrying jerry cans of it back to the farmhouse, one of them actually asked me why I had bothered, saying that there was more important work to do in the grounds. For essential water they had a few plastic dustbins scattered around the outside of the house, and they seemed to be praying for rain. They had a preoccupation with food, which of course I can understand, but you still have to have standards. Finally, flummoxed and exhausted, I flew into a rage. This brought most of the others into the kitchen. I told them that it was impossible to live like this and survive for very long, that while they seemed to have their act together regarding cooking and the growing of vegetables, sooner or later if they didn’t start cleaning their floors and their work surfaces properly, everybody was going to get ill and there could be deaths. I raised the matter of their living exclusively off vegetables – I said that they should have some kind of a roster organised for the hunting of small mammals, that I knew that they had hurricane lamps and a ready supply of paraffin, and that they could easily go lamping for rabbits during the hours of darkness. They seemed to have some kind of a moral objection to this - they just stood there, on the other side of the dining table, stunned and gawping at me. Then I made a mistake. I told them that the baby would probably be the first to die, and that it was probably down to their lack of hygiene that it was ill in the first place. Then I said that it was frankly uncivilised that a baby of six or seven months didn’t even have a name yet. I told them again that you have to have standards.

The one who had been in the kitchen when I had come in from my work, before the others had arrived in the kitchen in response to our shouting, this Bob came around the table at me, slowly, bringing his filthy dreadlocks with him. Half of them had these dreadlocks, and half of them had shaved heads. There seemed to be nothing in between. And then, I don’t know what made me do it, it seemed to come out of nowhere, I lifted my finger and I pointed at him and I said one word to him. Lice, I said, and his eyes lit up. He began to growl and then he came at me properly, quickly, and he punched me.

It wasn’t much of a blow, it didn’t even draw any blood, but it surprised me and I fell over backward, onto the floor. Immediately he was on top of me, flailing away with both arms, slapping at my face, and I pushed myself across the dirty floor, using my ankles to propel me, and I soon found myself pinned against the base of the kitchen sink. It juddered and some potato peelings fell down onto my head but he kept flailing away, he kept slapping at my face like a girl, and I raised my haunches slightly up into the air and I reached into my back pocket for my scalpel in order to defend myself. There was nothing at all sinister about my having it on me, there was no premeditation in this, I had been using it to cut twine outside while I had been working on the runner beans. At first I was just going to show it to him, to show that I meant business; but he was on top of me by now, and still flailing away. So it was then that I lost my temper with him again, but this time in a very cold and calculating way. I don’t know how it happened. It seems strange to characterise it as even a loss of temper, but there was a definite change in me, a sudden roaring silence, and I thrust the scalpel into his carotid artery at the base of his neck, I gave it a little twist and I pulled it out again, thrusting downward as I did so.

The effect was immediate. He stopped in his girlish flailings and I instinctively felt the space open between us. I curled myself up into a ball and I rolled away from under him in order to avoid the spray of blood. I stood up, and as I looked down at him I saw that he was now on all fours, clutching at his wounded neck and making animal gurgling sounds as he bled out. The others had been silent and staring all through the course of events. Now, of the remaining five, one of them – Jane, a girl with a shaved head – began screaming. It was loud and piercing and it just wouldn’t stop, and I felt as if the windows would shatter spontaneously at any moment. Then, the mother of the baby – Mary, also wearing dreadlocks – ran out of the room and upstairs. Two of the others looked around at the space she had vacated, then they looked at each other briefly, and they were off too, out into the yard and down towards the barn. That left only bald headed Jane the screamer, Derek with the dreadlocks, and me. Bob had stopped moving. He was clearly dead. Nobody dared look at him.

Still screaming, Jane picked up a chair and she threw it at me. I moved to my right and it sailed past me and broke the kitchen window just above the sink and it came to rest there, half in and half out of the house. Next Derek came at me with another chair, pushing me back into a corner, having at me with it like a lion tamer. Somehow I managed to climb up onto the kitchen table and then he was up there too, it would have been comedic were it not so intense, like something from a Marx brothers film; but in doing so he managed to let go of the chair and it went clattering onto the floor and Jane began screaming again. Now we danced around each other atop the table as best we could, carefully at first but then becoming more confident – it was a big table, wide as well as long, and we managed it quite nicely for a while but he had nothing to fight me with and I had the scalpel. He put up his fists into an antiquated boxing stance – I was half expecting him to call out “Queensberry rules!” - and he moved toward me and then away again, but he had left one his wrists exposed and I went for it in a downward stabbing motion, managing to cut into it; I twisted it out again and he began to bleed profusely as Jane ratcheted up the volume of her shrieking. He looked at me accusingly, and he stared at the wound as he grabbed it in a vain attempt to staunch the flow, and he put his head back and he howled. I saw my chance and my scalpel arm described a wide arc in the air as I went for his exposed throat. I got it in one sweeping thrust and the blood poured out of him as he fell off the kitchen table and onto the floor. Knowing that he was finished, I jumped down towards Jane and pushed her up against the wall with my free arm. She cranked up the screaming again and I stabbed her three times in her left eye and she collapsed. I got down on top of her and I methodically cut her throat.

When it was done I went to the kitchen window, pushed the chair the rest of the way through it, and stuck my head out. I could neither see nor hear any evidence of the others. I didn’t want to go upstairs because Mary was up there with the baby, and she had possibly had the chance to locate something to brain me with, and so I went quickly outside and ran across the fields towards the river Lee.

I was badly shaken and I hadn’t had time to bring any supplies with me, but I wanted to put as much distance between myself and the farmhouse as quickly as possible, so I ran for as long as I could bear it, and then I just kept walking. I walked for two or three days, running whenever I was able, but I could feel my body weakening and I needed food and water and a bed. I sat down in the middle of nowhere on a log that was next to a tree. It was nearly dusk and it had been a hot day, the first sunshine that I had seen since the previous autumn. I looked around myself, drifting in and out of consciousness, and when the girl came up and out of the trap door in the ground I thought that I must have been dreaming. I was laying down in the shade of the log by now and she didn’t see me at first. She had a cat in her arms and she was managing to take down washing from a line I hadn’t noticed before. I sat up and cleared my throat and she turned around with a start, dropping her washing and the cat. Oh, she said, you’ve frightened Derek. I must have looked at her strangely then, and she backed up a couple of steps and asked me who I was, and I told her my name. I asked if she knew of anywhere close by where I could get some water, and she told me that there was a stream that ran through a forest about a mile away and she told me that I looked awful. I put my head into my hands and I began to cry and she left me alone for a few minutes while she gathered the remainder of her washing, and then we went down into the hole.

I had thought that it must be some kind of an old cellar, perhaps designed for the storage of wine or perishables, but she told that it was a fallout shelter dating back to the time of the Cuban missile crisis. She seemed very young, so I asked her whether she lived here with her parents. She said no, that she had grown up in care in London, that her mother had committed suicide when she was six and she had never met her father. She said that when the care system had broken down she had lived on the streets and in squatted warehouses for a while with other children and a few young adults. They were pickpockets, sneak thieves, beggars and con artists. It all sounded very Dickensian. She said that she had done that for about a year, but that she had grown progressievly tired of the urban filth, and she had taken to the road. I liked what she was saying about the urban filth and I tried to chip into the conversation, I was going to tell her about my last few months at the hospital, but she was talking up a blue streak. I looked around the place and saw that she kept it very tidy, it was old but the cooker and some of the work surfaces were almost sparkling and she seemed to be very organised – there were tins of food neatly arranged on shelves, a few books on another, the cooker connected to its gas bottle. The floor was swept clean. Down at the far wall there were tools hanging from hooks, as though they were being displayed for retail in a hardware store. She kept talking as I looked around, and she told me that she had walked here as I had, all of the way up the river Lee and then across the fields. When she stopped to pause for breath I asked her whether she had brought any of the food or tools here with her but she said no, only the clothes on my back she said, there were some people here when I arrived but they were already dead. She seemed to think that they had wanted to be found, that if they hadn’t wanted that and to be given a half decent burial then they would have chopped down the tree and disposed of the log, that was what had drawn the both of us to the trap door, to the entrance to the shelter. She said that they had suicided together, that they were laying in one another’s arms on a thin mattress down by the tools at the far wall, and she indicated to me the wheelbarrow, the shovel, and the roll of plastic sheeting that were still leaning there now. It seemed very set up she said to me, it seemed to be arranged, the bodies there where the eye would be drawn to them as you first looked around when you got inside, with the wheelbarrow and the sheeting and the shovel sitting there next to them, just saying to the first person who came in, please bury us. I asked her how they had done it, where she had buried them, and what she had done with the mattress. She said that it looked very much as if they had cut one another’s wrists, that from their positioning they had had done it together and then intermingled their blood and waited for the end to come. For the big sleep, she said. She said that there had been a Stanley knife caked in blood stuck to the woman’s shirt, and that she had buried it with them so that the gatekeepers of the afterlife might know that they were suicides. I shrugged at this and then she told me that the mattress had been soaked in their blood and that she hadn’t wanted it, that after she had buried them in the forest she had burned the mattress down by the river Lee, she had watched it burn in the early hours of the morning and when it was only embers and springs she had kicked it into the river and watched until it sank, and then she had walked back here and cleaned the place up. There were maggots she had said, but they were all gone now, like the people. I asked her could she not have just turned the mattress and slept on it but she said no, she hadn’t wanted it, and she indicated to me a large piece of foam beneath a writing desk and some blankets and she said, that’s where I sleep, under there is where I sleep, if you want to rest here a while you’re very welcome but you’ll have to sleep on the floor, and don’t come too close, don’t get any ideas, there was another Stanley knife and I always keep it with me. Then she made black tea and she warmed up some gruel on the stove, and we ate and drank that, and she read for a while by candlelight from a book about survival and after an hour we turned in, her under the desk and me on the floor between two fishing chairs.

We carried on like that for a few days, her cooking and reading and washing clothes occasionally, and me not doing much of anything. I didn’t want to go back outside but I didn’t want to tell her why. It was the people from the farmhouse. I felt sure that the survivors of the kitchen massacre would come looking for me soon. The only way for them to go was north, along the river. East or west would take them into the unknown and south would only take them to the burning hell that was London. When I needed to make my toilet, which I did as infrequently as possible, I did it at dusk or in the very early morning and I always took a spare saw blade with me for protection. I walked east toward the forest but I didn’t want to go in there, or to walk too far from the shelter, and so I just walked until I found a ditch and I did it there, I made sure to cover my leavings. But the resident, as I had come to think of her, wasn’t as clean as I had first thought. It became clear to me that following her initial clean up after the corpses, she had done very little to keep on top of the household maintenance. There was a smell lingering. She was also spending rather a lot of time outside in the daytime, and I was fearful that this might draw attention to us. When I finally confronted her regarding this most essential and elementary matter, the hygiene matter, she became very defensive. It’s not me it’s you she said, you don’t wipe your arse properly, you need to go down by the river, not over towards the forest. It would be fine if you went all of the way to the forest and found the stream she said, but you don’t do you, you fall short of that, you need running water to clean yourself properly. I became suspicious that she knew my exact movements. When she said you fall short, I immediately thought of my father and his gambling on the stock market, his mistresses, his drinking and his ridiculous mind games and expectations, and the awful roaring silence descended upon me again. I had just come in from my toilet, it was shortly after nightfall, and I still had the saw blade in my hand. I took a couple of steps toward her, pursing my lips but saying nothing. She was close to the sink and she stepped backwards as far as she could but she was soon wedged up against it. She looked very small and I felt a moment of pity, of rapprochement, but immediately this happened I saw her reaching into her pocket for the Stanley knife and before I knew what was happening her throat was cut. I lifted her up onto the draining board and I put the saw blade down onto it next to her. I heard her gurgle and rather a lot of blood came out of her mouth, and then I put one hand on her forehead and I held her hand with the other, and then she gurgled out some more blood and then she said, I am done, and then she was gone too.

I wrapped her body in some of the plastic sheeting and I stowed it under the writing desk, and I waited until the morning. I didn’t sleep very much, partly because of the turn of events and partly because I didn’t want to miss the dawn, and when it came I brought the wheelbarrow and her body up to the surface and I took her away and into the forest and I buried her away from the stream, where nobody might find her. I saw that she had planted a little wooden cross where she had interred the original occupants of the shelter, the first residents, and I buried her away from them too. I didn’t want the gatekeepers of the afterlife to get her mixed up with the suicides.

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