Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Undone - Short Story

Now, I am including this story out of chronological sequence. 'Insecurity' and 'Spindrift' were written in 1993-4 and this one in 2002. They had been thinking about making 'Life on Mars' as early as 1998 so even if I had somehow could have got near a TV contract I would have been too late. However, I include it alongside those because, like them it is about my weird attachment to elements of 1970s culture. I thought about this story for years and had intended it to be a novel. However, since the advent of 'Life on Mars' first shown in 2006, this genre has probably been worked out. The location is specific, it is a road which runs by a lake in Surrey down to where my grandfather lived. He was a very unpleasant man but his house was in location of intriguing sights. It lay close to the canals that I have referred to, so the whole district to me seemed associated with walks (and not doing forced labour in my parents' garden). There is a bank beside the road which you have to clamber up to look out over the lake. Farther down the lane was a railway carriage sat in a field and that and odd things such as the little brook and the animals on the pasture and the reeds by the river all gave it a real character that because of when I went there I also always associate with the 1970s and all that canal boat-folk music-self-sufficiency axis that I have been talking about here.

I produced a number of versions of this story. This is just over 3000 words and is the original version. I fleshed it out to bring it up to 4000 words for a competition but feel that it was too clearly padding. I also cut it down to 2000 words to make it acceptable to read at the writers' group but that was too rushed and too many things then lacked explanation. So here it is in its original form, bringing together an element of my short story writing which was slightly less about me simply recounting my doubts about life and instead wallowing in a culture that was not appealing to me but was certainly intriguing and seemed to be a lost slice of British life of the recent past.


For the thousandth time, I switched on the light and read my watch. I wished I had my usual digital watch, but in 1975 it would have provoked questions that I could not risk being asked. The watch hand seemed to have crept just a fraction of a millimetre beyond where I had last seen it. I was bored. I groped in my pocket for the white paper bag of mints I had bought earlier that day and popped one into my mouth. I had long forgotten what Sundays had been like. I was used to twenty-four hour shops, buying online and the delights of DIY stores packed full of families. Here the newsagent was open until twelve-thirty, and then the only distraction for families had for the rest of the day was gazing into closed estate agents’ windows. ‘Closed? Don’t they realise how much business they’re losing?’ I muttered to myself. It would take them another decade to learn that.

I suppose to have behaved truly appropriately for the year I was in I should have passed the time smoking, but that is something I never really got into, even before it became illegal. The pub I had visited earlier had been thick with tobacco smoke and it took time for my eyes and throat to adjust. Despite the walk along the lake’s edge, I could still smell the stink deep in my clothes,. I had expected to while away the afternoon in the pub, spending my carefully gathered period coins on beer and peanuts, buying just enough packets to reveal the scantily clad woman on the card fixed up behind the bar. But of course, they had closed mid-afternoon and I had had to skulk around the park, reading tabloid newspapers that I found in the waste bins, waiting for night to fall before they would let me back in. Not for the first time I wondered why the youth of this time had not committed mass suicide. School must have come as a blessing each Monday. Just spending one day here was bad enough for me. I suppose that was why Patrick had drunk, he could pass many Sundays happily time smoking dope and downing whisky at his old farmhouse with Carol, Karen, Bob and Matt. Once again I moved my head to see if I could catch a glimpse of the house through the trees, but it was dark and too many leaves still clung on to give me a clear view. Anyway, tonight I knew he would not be there.

To distract me I reached for the blue-spined paperback book about the coming fuel crisis. Wedged in it as a book mark, as if to emphasise the point, was an article about the coming shortage of protein. I wanted to telephone someone and tell them, ‘It’s alright for the moment. You eat too much meat anyway. Instead get those condoms out of the pub toilets and into schools, you’ll do a lot better for mankind, listen to me.’ I ran my fingers over the paper pages and held the book close to my nose. I loved the feel of a non-electronic book. It was just an affectation, pandering to my hobby. Of course it was all wrong: the pages were dark tan and it smelt old, all wrong for a book published in the year I was now in.

I read a few pages and flicked through some more, turning the book to look at the various charts and diagrams. No-one remembers the prophets who get it wrong. They are never recorded in history, or maybe they have come to be. I thought about all the imagined histories of the third world war I had collected on my shelf at home. Every decade of the twentieth century seemed to have had its favourite doom. Idly I tried to remember what it had been in the nineties.

I yawned. My backside was getting sore. The jeans I was wearing were a touch too tight, especially following the roast dinner that I had had. It was a novelty to be dressed this way, in clothes may of animal and plant fibres. I remembered Jean Morris at the university telling me that a glut in cotton had shaped the fashions of the era, it was a ‘historical fact’ she had said. To me they looked impractical and ridiculous. I was not sure that a man of my age would have dressed like this anyway, but the only pictures we could find had shown fashions for young people and I had had to settle for that. I was grateful, though, that I had the loud red-and-white striped sleeveless sweater and the corduroy jacket, I was feeling chilly and I could not turn on the engine to warm myself up. It seemed surprisingly cold for early September, but then I supposed sitting here I was not protected from that breeze off the lake, well, the old gravel pit, to describe it accurately. It had closed down five years earlier and had already evolved into a sailing club for the suburbs, along with a spot of bird watching around the edge. I guess that is what some people did to pass the time on Sundays in the seventies. Everyone told me that television was better in then, but I only remembered dreary Victorian serials.

I did remember one time visiting Uncle Patrick’s and being lent the heavy Soviet binoculars that he had got cheap. ‘Soviet, now that’s an adjective that really dates things.’ I had had to lie flat on my belly, concealed in some rushes the far side of the lake from the club. I had felt excited, like a sniper. All I saw was seagulls skimming the lake surface. ‘Now, when was that? It had to be later, towards the end of the ‘70s.’ I had no desire to run into myself, but could not be certain that I had avoided the chance. Being in my eighties now, the past is not so much another country as somewhere in Britain you have only received postcards from, like Rye or Llandudno.

I suppose the date was well enough into September that school would have started and the next time me and the rest of the family would see Uncle Patrick would be for Christmas. He was the youngest of my mother’s brothers, and my gran had told me the rest of the family had petted him as a child, but I felt my mother had come to look down on him. She, her name was Claire, was irritated by his ways, his inability to settle into what she would call a ‘normal’ life. He never had a wife, just girlfriends and to much of the family that seemed inappropriate for a man entering his forties. My opinion had switched through my youth, at first enjoying what he represented, a place away from the more boring parts of suburbia. His house was almost rural, though in fact not that far from civilization, but it was a rambling place to which all the antiques of the Walker family had accrued. He had nice chocolates and he baked, not always successfully, but there were decent cakes, different stuff from what we had at home. Sometimes though, when I felt myself mature, I disapproved of him like my mother and would sulk until he told me a story of his travels in 1960s.

‘Fool!’ I thought, my brain must be addled. I must have come here in 1975, as we only came here once after his death and that was for the funeral. My mother spent months disposing of all the junk. I remember her looking thin and ill, her face scratched from cutting back the hedges. Those months were a heavy burden on her as she fended off Patrick’s strange friends. Carol flipped as a result of his death, and there were mutters she had gone into an institution. It was only years later I found out that was true. Matt had been beaten close to death by some thugs Patrick had been protecting him from. As time passed it turned out that Patrick’s house out here had been a kind of refuge. His sometimes nihilist attitude to things hid a real altruism. It was only when I read a line from Irini Papagos’s autobiography about the help he had given her when she fled the Colonels’ regime that I began to see more than Uncle Patrick in the late Patrick Walker.

I tracked down references to his artwork as well, just a few small exhibitions, but it made me curious as to where it had all gone after his death. I remembered the outhouse we had been forbidden from entering, that Patrick kept closed with a padlock. He would sometimes emerge from it when our car pulled up, but as a child I had always imagined he was building something like a car. Then again I always was more focused on eccentric inventions, part of what got me here.

I looked at my watch once more. It was twenty-five past. I stirred myself into action. I remembered the police report I had accessed had said death had occurred sometime between nine thirty and ten on Sunday 21st September 1975. It would have been a guess I suppose, but so far I had neither seen or heard any traffic, neither Patrick’s car nor the one he was going to crash into. I switched on the main car lights. This lane was unlit, and though the Moon occasionally cast a bright grey over things, there were too many shadows from the trees and bushes. I did not want to provide an alternative obstacle for Patrick to crash his car into.

I got out of the car, opened the boot and took out the red triangle. Realising it must be close to nine thirty and I was just two corners from where his car went off the road I hurried. My movements were mechanical, I had thought this through so many times, that it was hard to believe it was finally happening. I walked away from the back of the car, looking for a good spot to set up the triangle. My hands were trembling. To people of 1975 I would look closer to fifty than eighty, the wonders they can do these days, but physical regeneration cannot overcome the burden of all the memories, more than that, all the worries, the what-ifs that you have stored in your brain.

My stomach leapt and I looked up sharply as I heard the car’s engine. I fumbled for the small torch in my pocket. It was an original, not too powerful, but that was what I wanted, to alert Patrick, not to dazzle him. Then, faster than I guessed the car rounded the corner. I thought it was going to hit me, but it twisted to the side scraping along the hedge that edged the field opposite the lake. I thought he would power on, ignoring me, and I wondered if my delay would have been enough to make him avoid the accident. Then he stopped, almost level with my car. I walked quickly over to him, eager that he did not drive off. I could still get everything back to plan.

The engine was idling as I approached the car. It was a large two-door vehicle, wasteful of petrol, what was it? A Cortina, a Capri? I tried to remember the names. The window wound down slow and jerkily. I had to remind myself that that was how they were once operated. A woman’s face popped out. As I saw it in the weak light shed by Patrick’s car and my own, I felt as if punched. It was Claire, my mother, I knew that face so well, though not with the lipstick smeared across it as I saw it now.

“Do you need a hand?” She spoke, but her words were broken by a belch. “A hand?” She waved one at me, the nail-polish on the tips struck me as wrong too.

I coughed and made incoherent sounds, things were coming unravelled. I walked closer to the car. As I did the driver lent closer, across Claire. It was Patrick, the blond hair, the curled sideburns were just as I had seen them on innumerable holos.

“Yes, yes, the car’s, the car’s buggered.” I stuttered.

“Right. Let me have a look.” Typically, in moments Patrick had cut the engine and sprang from the car. Then he stopped and lent back in. I realised he had stopped to kiss Claire, not the kiss of brother at all.

Breathing came hard to me. I staggered a little. Patrick noticed and pulled himself away. Claire’s hand stroked his as he did.

Patrick walked briskly round to my car. I had forgotten his size, his energy, but it was clear as he moved that he was drunk or drugged or both. I did not know how he had got this far down the narrow lane without an accident already. He pulled open the driver’s door and got into my car, his foot slipping for a moment as he did. He glanced back at me, as if fearful of giving himself away. I guessed if I had met a man dressed like me in his fifties I could mistake him for an off-duty police captain too.

I handed Patrick the keys and he tried turning the engine a couple of times. I knew the fault. I had engineered it about thirty minutes earlier. Getting hold of dirty spark plugs in the mid-twenty-first century had been a nightmare, but they seemed to be doing their job.

I glanced over at Claire who was sipping from a wine bottle and fiddling with the car radio. She found something she liked, I was trying to remember whether it was too early for ABBA and too late for T-Rex.

Patrick had opened the bonnet and was rooting around ineffectually. “You’re right mate it’s buggered.”

“Thanks for looking, Patrick.” I almost vomited in that second. I stood shivering, fearful of what I had done. In instants all the dangers that I risked flashed through my brain, but my words seemed not have penetrated.

“I’ll drive you back to mine, it’s just round the corner, you can call from there. You’re with the AA or something?”

“Can’t I just use your...” I cut my words off, this was an age without mobile ‘phones, let alone anything more sophisticated. “No. I’ve been abroad, South Africa, only got back into the country recently.”

“You don’t sound like a South African.” Now Patrick looked dubious.

“I’m not. I’m a reporter.” I realised I had picked the wrong country. I tried to remember when apartheid had ended there, was it ‘70s or not until later? “It’s terrible what’s happening there.” I said, feeling it covered all avenues.

“Yeah, it is. You’ve seen it up close?”

“Yeah. Terrible.” I repeated.

“Well, come on, get in. There’s always room at my place to crash. Lock up and come over.”

I killed the lights and packed the red triangle back in the boot. I locked the car but knew I would not be coming back to it.

I walked over to Patrick’s car. Claire had got into the back, and Patrick shoved the door open for me. I got in. The interior stunk: it was a mix of cheap wine, cigarettes and sex.

“I’m Patrick, this is Claire.”

“Hi!” She called from the back.

“I’m Professor Adrian Elmsley.”

“Elmsley?” Claire muttered.

For an instant I cursed. I had forgotten the fake name I had been using.

“Very formal.” Patrick said as he started the car. The wheels span for an instant on the dry dusty surface of the lane before getting a grip. The car started forward with a jerk.

“Friends call me Ade.” I tried to correct my error as the car pulled quickly away.

“Good to meet you.” He said extending his hand. I shook it, but with the other was searching for the seatbelt.

I jammed the metal tongue of the seatbelt into the mechanism, it was stiff, suggesting it was rarely used. It snapped into place as the car powered away, throwing me forward against it for an instant. Claire laughed. Steering one-handed Patrick reached for the cigarette packet and snatched out a cigarette.

“It’s quite dangerous down here.” I said nervously. I tried to see what my watch said, but it was too dark. I assumed it must be passed the time the original accident had happened and the other car would be safely away.

“I could drive it blindfolded, I come down here twice a day, all weathers.”

“That’s right.” Claire said proudly. She reached forward to drape her arms around her lover’s shoulders. He touched her hands with his fingertips.

“Ade’s a nice name.” Claire added.

I looked away, embarrassed beyond belief. We were approaching the last stretch and I let out a breath as I realised we were clear of the gravel pit lake, beyond where the accident happened. In moments we would be at the short side road to Patrick’s house. Then the car appeared to slew sideways, Patrick’s hands grabbed at the steering wheel which seemed to be spinning uncontrollably. In the headlights I could see the large oak that sat beside the track to his house.

My body was wrenched against the seatbelt. Even now I can feel the sensation of the belt like a bar slammed diagonally across my chest. The sound was horrific, the crunching, the shattering, the squeal of metal. Afterwards I was astounded at how the front of the car had compressed so much.

I do not know if I blacked out, but it seemed like hours before I could make sense of what was around me. Patrick lay sprawled across the dashboard, as if he was trying to crawl out where the windscreen had been. Glass was everywhere. The engine had stopped and there were no sounds, none at all. I wondered if I had been deafened by it, but as I finally moved I could hear the noise of shards sliding off me. Then I remembered Claire, I twisted round to see where she was. I guess if she had been in my seat, she might have been luckier, but now her forehead was a bloody mass. Her body had crumpled Patrick’s seat, adding to the force throwing him forward. Her eyes were open but a thick cover of blood streaked down over them. I vomited over myself again and again. I sat dazed for how long, I have no idea. The man who pulled me out was a local farmer, it was only when I returned here that I realised he had been the victim in the previous version of the crash, so I suppose I had achieved something.

So here we are looking at ‘Woman III’ by Patrick Walker. He made a regional gallery, if nothing else, mainly because his muse was not around to destroy all his work after his tragic accident.

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