Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Trap - Short Story

For some reason when I moved to London in 1994 I stopped writing short stories, well certainly ones shorter than 15,000 words, which I know to some people still counts as a short story, but I imagine is verging on a novella. Anyway, my work and my focus on the Beckmann stories meant little time for shorter fiction. Living in different parts of East London, first in a very nice flat and then in the more grim surroundings featured in this story, was very inspirational for my writing. As noted in this story I did a variety of jobs, including drawing on my half-baked teaching skills. I think the inspiration came from simply the number of people around there and the often odd things they got up to. I witnessed people swinging from second floor (third floor if you are American) balconies on ropes; children clambering across roofs; boys stealing a bus-stop and the range of debris you would find in the streets, I came across an ironing board, a kitchen sink and a newspaper produced by the NPD a German neo-Nazi party of the 1980s. The way the new, old and ancient things were jammed right alongside each other really struck me too as it has other authors like Michael Moorcock. Then I moved to Milton Keynes in 2001 and it was so incredibly bland, so lacking in substance or inspiration (it regularly reminded me of the town featured in the Jim Carrey movie, 'The Truman Show' (1998)) that I was thrown back on my East London experiences which by now were coalescing into a form in which they could be used for fiction.

Given the thought, prompted by friends' comments, that I had given to whether I was a 'vampire' of people's lives and whether it was wrong for me try to write about anything I had not experienced personally I produced 'The Trap', a story in which everything was true and had been experienced by me. The original version had all the real names, but I realised that when I entered it into competitions it might lead to my landlord having his takeaway closed down if people found out there were mice running around the rooms above it. He was a good man and I did not want to bring him any harm. There are scores of friend chicken restaurants all over East London. Chicken is the meat that only offends vegetarians no other faith. Tower Hamlets council even recognised the contribution to employment that such outlets brought to the borough. So, all the people and their histories, the events and settings in this story are true, all that has been changed are the names.

The Trap

I awake and shift on to my back. The room is too dark to see the ceiling, the overlarge heavy curtains stop the orange light of the streets penetrating into my room. In seconds I remember where I am, closed in the box of a room on the fourth floor of this slice of the Victorian era. ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ we have jokingly named it, though in fact it is upstairs at Mr. Mirza’s. He owns City Fried Chicken on the ground floor and the narrow five storeys above it. There are at least seven of us jammed in here, from Pete the Vietnam veteran and his lovely ex-wife from Thailand on the second floor, up to the two Chinese men packed almost into the roof with the woman who sometimes squeezes in there too. Weeks back I had to help the landlord saw off the corner of their bed to allow it up the even tighter staircase to their room. Directly below me lives Robert’s replacement. Robert was the Nigerian security guard. At first he was a good friend of the landlord, they shared Guinness, but eventually he could not pay the rent and their arguments echoed through the house. The weekly blank cheque for £50 had proven too much for his meagre income and the last we saw of him was a forlorn figure carrying his still inflated purple armchair West along the Mile End Road. My thought had been, ‘where do you go when upstairs at Mirza’s becomes too expensive?’ Now the newcomer, the Romanian woman, has taken his room. She scatters rose petals on the stairs and sobs to East European pop music, but for the moment even she seems silenced.

I listen, but no-one is stirring. This is uncommon, the house is rarely at rest, there are only three hours when everyone is asleep. I get up at five-thirty for my job, an eleven hour shift in West London, with an hour-long tube ride each way. A friend of mine likened it to self-flagellation, but that never paid so well. I rise only three hours after Mr. Mirza’s two nephews go to bed. They work in the shop below. It shuts at two in the morning. It is one of the many fried chicken takeaways on the Mile End Road, but probably the most successful, wedged between the college, the late-opening pub and the tube station. Even taxi drivers from Tottenham know the renowned City Fried Chicken; its resplendent red and yellow. The nephews’ room is on my floor, but I have never seen inside and only occasionally does the sound of the vacuum cleaner or Asian music spill out from behind the door.

It has to be that quiet time between the takeaway shutting and my clock radio springing into life. The noise that woke me must have been something unusual. After a year I am used to the sounds around me including the Central Line trains that pass right beneath the building shaking it with a rumble. The shriek of sirens, so common in this part of East London, even the rush of the water that bypasses the lock on the canal a short way from my window, they have all become familiar enough for my sleeping brain to ignore.

The fact that it is quiet now means that the disturbance was quick, over in moments. I discard the theory that for the second time this year we have the police pursuing someone through the house. Though the thick Victorian walls insulate us from the noise of the neighbouring pub, occasionally fights spill over from its doorstep. A couple of months back, pursued by the police, a man had vaulted the counter and finding no escape from the back of the shop had burst through the connecting door into our house. His thumping footsteps as he jumped up the stairs followed by the even heavier tread of the two police in pursuit had resounded through the building. Kept awake by the pains South-East Asia, Syria and Lebanon have inflicted on him, Pete was quickly at his door to investigate. Fortunately the first room you encounter coming up the stairs is the huge bathroom and it gave the man his way of escape. Neither of the Chinese was sitting there in the dark lit only by their cigarettes, as is so often the case. He was free to power through, lift the sash window and clamber on to the flat roof. The police were close behind, but once he had dropped off into the park behind the shops, they gave up the chase and came back through the window clutching the crash helmet he had left behind. The next morning we could all see the floor the landlord bleaches so assiduously scarred with a range of muddy footprints.

The disturbance has to be closer, probably in this room. A breeze outside the window sucks on the clingfilm taped to it to keep out the draughts. It flicks back and forth for a second and then rests. That is too insignificant to have roused me. The old fridge, my roommate, shudders and settles, but that too is a common sound as it wakes and quietens regularly throughout the night. Then I know. I know what has woken me and my mind jerks to life. I know there is an intruder. It was the trap which woke me. It has always proven more effective as an alarm than actually killing anything.

Now I lie dead still, my breath held in my lungs as I work out my response. I resolve that I can do nothing in the dark. I have to get up and switch on the lights, the situation may be resolved, the decision removed from my hands as he escapes from the room. I throw back the two duvets in a rapid move and, dodging the pile of shoes on the floor, lunge for the light switch. The large neon light dazzles me for a moment as I look to the corner between the desk and chest of drawers. Amongst the mass of wires for the computer, the television and the fridge I see him sitting. For the second time the trap has done no damage. Then I see his nose is bloody. He has the arrogance to sit there, by the trap, nibbling the chocolate. They get more intelligent each time. The chocolate is wrapped in foil so that they spend long enough at the trap to trigger it, naked chocolate is just snatched away too easily.

The fact that the mouse does not run makes my decision harder. I had bought the 90p trap late last summer. Back from holiday I had found something had nibbled through the outer plastic wrapper of an eight pack of Tunnocks Caramel bars, then shredded the foil round a single bar before licking off the chocolate of a whole corner. I had felt violated, the knowledge that the black bits I found on the carpet were droppings had been confirmed. Humane traps had been recommended but that seemed no solution. How far would I have to take the prisoner, where could I release it, how could I stop it returning? No, it had to be something that killed, something that removed all decisions from my hands.

Well, that had been the plan. The first victim was pitiful, it had caught only its back leg. The mouse had hauled the trap behind it, trailing blood across the carpet. Killing it had been mercy - a crippled mouse would have died slowly and painfully. The second and now this third were more trouble. The trap just woke me and presented me with the decision to kill or reprieve. It had shirked its responsibility. The second one had been quick. A shoe heel twice to the head had left it unmarked, it had lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse.

The arrogance of its successor drives me on. It has to die. I reach slowly for the same pair of heavy-heeled shoes whether I have the right or the left one I do not notice. I step forward slowly, now not wanting it to flee, but as I close it breaks. Rather than escape through the wires to the holes in the walls it comes towards me as if to challenge. It hesitates at the corner of the desk. There is cover to its left. My highlight of the week are Fridays when I escape long shifts in London to teach in Luton and piled here are marked students’ essays. Most are wrapped in plastic sheaths, but I fear that the one on the bottom is just bare paper. I imagine a traumatised student taking their marked essay with the bloody outline of a slaughtered mouse imprinted on the back page. I am reprieved but the mouse is not. He turns right and runs over the open floor, crossing the wine brown stain of the first victim’s dried blood on the dirty yellow carpet.
This is no clean killing. The heel misses the head and strikes the mouse’s middle with force. Its stomach erupts from its mouth. This is the worst of the killings, the messiest. Fortunately there is no twitching. I stay still for a few moments, bile in my throat. The mouse is dead and the Romanian woman sleeps on undisturbed by my sudden thump.

I hurry to the kitchen and snatch up the dustpan and brush. I have no desire to touch the corpse with its guts on display. I sweep it into the pan, dabbing at the blood on the carpet. I leave it in the kitchen as I always do, for Mr. Mirza to see, to prompt him into action. Despite his like of bleach and his belief, often repeated, that I am a ‘good man’, he seems unable to resolve the mouse problem. In the year I have known him his English has not improved an iota. That, and the fact that this address on the Mile End Road appears on no council tax list, probably explains why he has not called in the pest control officer.

Returning from the kitchen I stop in the small toilet tucked beneath the Chinese men’s room. It is long and narrow with a slit window at eye level. As I wash my hands I can see through the window across the park. It is never dark in Mile End. The innumerable streetlights create a hazy orange dome in the sky and you can never see the stars. It is comforting in some ways as if you are never truly outside. The grimy window, peculiarly hinged at the bottom, blows in and bangs down onto the sill. Now I can see more clearly. In the near distance, equivalent to four or five streets away, a railway track defines the edge of the park. A train passes along the track. The light shining from its square windows make it look like a small strip of film running through a projector. One day I am going to write that image into a story.

I dry my hands on my pyjamas for want of a towel. As I walk back to the heavy door to my room I hear muffled voices from my clock radio. It must be five-thirty, time to get up. Now I head back to the toilet to splash water on my face. It might still be dark, but the night and its incidents are over, morning has begun.

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