Peter swallowed his pride, realising, in his heart of hearts, that a chance discovery of his incriminating past, without his prior confession, would be the worst possible scenario in a situation which was already quite bad enough. Yet, the method of his coming clean would not be at all straightforward. So, upon a choppy sea of non-sequiturs, Peter automatically started dwelling upon a certain Claude Etty, emerging in his mind from that dubious past which he had tried to forget. The chances were that Claude Etty had become an old man - but, to Peter, Claude Etty was still a strapping young one who would mug an old lady soon as look at her. He owed Peter a favour and, at such an optimum moment, why not instigate repayment? Despite this being the least likely answer to his problems, by any measure of rationality, Peter's brainstorming had led him to believe wholly in Claude Etty as that very answer...
Claude Etty's brothers and sisters had long since escaped to distant quarters of the world - so when he was arrested for murder, nobody suspected one of his brothers, a brother who had returned surreptitiously to the country and left again in heavy disguise. So, Claude mouldered away in prison, not even astute enough to believe his own innocence, whilst the guilty brother lived the life of Riley in a secret place which boasted a sun-kissed cove largely inhabited by well-knockered bimbos and ill-knickered flaunty floosies.
Claude, despite his flair for crime, had always possessed an almost religious attention to routine, but his whole life had been one long tolerance of unexpected interruptions to such routine - being imprisoned the biggest diversion so far.
Today, he was simply a ghost of himself - because his precious self was indeed elsewhere fulfilling the routine of an erstwhile life that had become little better than imaginary. His mother and father had only recently passed on domestic duties to him when they became double bed-ridden, soon after their other children absconded to warmer climes. Of course, the old dears were currently lying dead (again together) in a king-size grave, quite close to the prison.
The Earth itself was a prison, Claude Etty suddenly thought. So was the past, where he mopped, polished, dusted, scoured, scooped and shovelled. Incontinence was like that. Not that he understood the word. Or any other word for that matter. His brain had assumed the habit of a mental duffle-coat, its duffle-pegs being uncomfortably forgotten thoughts.
His dead parents' escape-tunnel from their grave was getting closer to the prison as they clawed through with fast-decomposing fingers, leaving eel-like body-parts in their wake. Claude smiled, toothless as he was mindless. His elder sister was no doubt coming tomorrow from the back-burner of the Antipodes, disguised as a Shrink. He kicked out at the urchin who cowered in a shift under his prison bed and ordered her to slop out the body-cans. There were indeed scores of these Prison-Maids, with service-tunnels honeycombing below all the prison-cells.
Claude's own body-cells were fast decaying, each silverfish of a membrane dividing out into its constituent weak-ends. Someone had tugged his earth-wire out - and he cried simply because it was the appointed time to cry. He had almost forgotten whom he had murdered and why and when and, even, what. Routines were excuses for not doing the obvious thing. Thankfully, he still had his phantom menstruation to cope with, which gave some sort structure to the endless weeks. Still that didn't make much sense in the context, in spite of it being an all womens' prison. A nick for knockers.
Meanwhile, Peter gave up thinking about Claude Etty, as he looked round the empty doctor's waiting-room. Strange: this particular surgery was customarily the busiest, one where all the mothers and babies turned up in squawking droves. The situation reminded Peter of that country pub in the no man's land between Guildford and Dorking; the large patrons' car park full up - but inside nobody but Peter himself and a surly barman who apparently couldn't draw a frothy pint without dribbling into it.
It was so quiet in the waiting-room, Peter could even hear the comforting smack of ball on willow from the nearby cricket ground. He had seated himself in the wicker-chair nearest to the tightly packed magazine rack, but resisted the temptation to tug one of them out. He'd perused them all on previous visits and he'd only finish up mooning at the fashion advertisements again. Instead, his mind dwelled upon the window factory tour upon which he had been conducted the day before. It was amazing how those house-tall slabs of glass were translated into bespoke apertures. A dangerous occupation. There was one giant triangular shard which could have gone straight through your body, if at the optimum angle. Peter wondered why there weren't more accidents. Most people he knew, including himself, lived a relatively charmed life. This was not altered by the fact that he was now attending the surgery because he had been pierced through the sole of his shoe by one of the many off-cuts littering the factory floor. A minor accident, of course, nothing more than a flea-bite of an injury.
The day before that, Peter had been taken around a printing works, where gargantuan rolls of paper were translated into those very same magazines that sat in the waiting-room which he had just that moment eschewed. It was a real eye-opener to be shown the various processes that constituted the manufacture of what one might otherwise take for granted.
He held his hands up to the light (as a distant cheer betokened a mighty boundary) and whimsically wondered whether, one day, he'd have the opportunity to tour God's factory. He laughed out loud, much to the consternation of the rest of the human Undergrunts who had by now filled the waiting-room. The doctor's voice could be heard shouting "Next!" as the previous patient came out - being a spitting image, Peter thought, of Claude Etty or was it that surly barman in the pub between Dorking and Guildford? Taking a wistful glance at the magazine rack, as if that were his only anchor in reality, Peter limped forlornly towards the doctor's examination room, fully expecting, if not believing, that it would be cram-packed with pink mewling babies from floor to ceiling.
The doctor was himself riffling through a glossy magazine. From Peter's eye-view, it appeared to be a specialist medical publication depicting various gory surgical cuts.
"Oh, hello, you here again?"
"Yes, doctor, one of my feet..."
"...is in the grave again, I suppose."
The doctor laughed cadaverously at his own joke, while he was still able to laugh, as the window violently exploded over both of them - by aid of a rogue cricket ball. And although time stood still for Peter, his thoughts could now return to Claude Etty...
Claude Etty once found it necessary to disguise himself as a woman, for he didn't want to go the war. He wasn't exactly a coward, but he couldn't bear the idea of rubbing along with the type of men that soldiers always seemed to be. He cringed at their snorting through straggly nasal hair and making wisecracks about all manner of body-parts. He supposed, if truth were told rather than hoarded, his own body was camouflage for an innocent pretty girl, looking through his eyes from inside his head.
The war was between nations that once formed a triple alliance, but they all now fought each other tooth and nail, with no recourse to sub-treaties, mutual espionage agreements, subterfuge nor even mercy. Whatever side was supported, it was obvious that each one had a cause incontravertibly worthy of whole-hearted support. Each permutation of two nations had their famous battles, as many still recall. But the fiercest battle which actually ended the war was when all three armies took to the same field concurrently and knocked the dead nightlights into each other.
Claude was sitting by the fire, listening to tanks crawling over other tanks, grunting beasts so typical of the men inside them. He feared for the thatch roof above him; it might have been caught by the fiery traceries flowing across the sky. The walls shook, as the triangle of conflict tightened.
The girl within him suddenly seemed to have urges he had previously eschewed.
"Sorry, my dear, that's one pleasure we'll both have to forego."
She did not answer. Claude must have known, but not admitted to himself, that she had not been inside him at all. She'd been far too demure to make such suggestions anyway. He sighed with relief, since the sweet creature would remain untarnished, undefiled, unsullied. He also wept openly for he was suffering the deepest bereavement that any human being could feel - the death of self. The imprisonment of the wrong soul in the wrong body.
He heard the rush of crackling above him. And he thanked God that the girl at least had survived ... somewhere ... probably above the burning thatch of the house itself. She'd be flying in across the battlefield, buoyed up by a parachute skirt of flesh, viewing the surviving soldiers of the three nations, as they played skipping games in new found sisterhood. Claude wondered if she shed pretty pearls of sorrow from her eyes upon seeing the extrusion of a blackened corpse from within his body. Such teardrops could not have been sufficient, however, to extinguish the raging flames...
Time leapfrogged. Peter's uncle had secured a position for him. There were not many vacation jobs that summer even at the seaside. He was therefore grateful to be given one which entailed sorting rubbish at Hastings Dump. He supposed, in retrospect, he must have been quite young in those days - not that he would have admitted it at the time. In his own eyes, he was a man of the world. So, the fact that four-letter words were merely kept apart from each other by means of inconsequential grunts in the speech rhythms of his colleagues on the Dump should have come as no surprise - especially as Peter was studying linguistics at University at the time.
There were two men, in particular, whom Peter remembered. One was Fred, the other Tom. Fred was short, had a permanent flat cap and showed a sharp wit for his age and demeanour. Tom was both physically and mentally thick. They and Peter had to pick through the rubbish piles for the purpose of salvaging good paper and cardboard to be stacked by a pressure machine. Even then, there must have been a vogue for recycling.
Peter was amazed one day when Tom began sampling pieces of old ham (or what looked like old ham) from the muck-heaps and even offering what he considered to be choice morsels to him. Fred, on the other hand, laid claim to his place in the indelible part of Peter's memory because, on one occasion, he scuttled like a twitchy mouse behind a yet untrawled section of rubbish and invited Peter to join him there for a glimpse of each other's private areas. Needless to say, Peter declined his invitation. Fred didn't stop being friendly to him after Peter's refusal, so Fred's negative leanings really brought out something positive about his simple-minded character. But life was never simple. Yet such events are the stuff of memory.
The only dream from those heady days of nostalgic hindsight Peter could recall was one about abortion (a subject on every lip following the Pope's Encyclical). A crowd of coffins. Baby-sized ones. Discovered under all the domestic detritus of Hastings town. Each with a fleshy doll inside with its knuckles, knees and elbows ground to the bone. And each sweet dead face with a smile for those who'd killed it before they'd kissed it. They stank to high heaven, like Tom's ham. Peter would have preferred a gay dalliance with Fred rather than allow his own little wriggly headless otherwise harmless generative organ to create such unwanted horrors with its white pus. Of course, Peter had put such dreaming from his mind ... till now. The sudden vantage point of the distant future could heal faster than the speed with which bodies and minds change day by day, cell by cell.
And a coffin is the last cell, beyond which even the escape-tunnel of the future collapses. What's more, there being so many of us dead and yet to die, the crowd of coffins must be even smaller than the pinheads upon which angels dance.
That summer Peter attended a Flower-Power Pop Festival at Hastings football ground and saw the group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich perform live. Mick thought he should have been called Horny ... but that meant the group's name wouldn't flow properly. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Horny and Tich? That was the stuff of alternate worlds and parallel universes. All mostly goobledygook.
Pop stars, these days, seem to perform dead.
Tom and Fred must've died yonks ago. Ungrateful Peter was not there to kiss them farewell - too late to remember them now, a fact which makes Peter want to weep. Perhaps he'll go back to Hastings Dump one day, if it is still there (or even if it isn't), and sniff round for long pig or lost organs....
"There was a wicked warm way to her heart," Claudette said.
"What was that?" the judge asked, knowing all the time that she had a story to tell...
"The stars were far-flung across a colour-drained sky. But black was indeed a colour itself, her favourite one, as she stood with legs spread upon the stone plinth at the wood's edge. This was no coven; for this was an Order of Members of far more probing depth. They starred outwards, fanning their arms, chanting vague prayers to even vaguer gods. The eyes shone like cars. Then came the moment when all settled into rigid silence, watching, waiting. The watching finished before the waiting: the wrinkled egg-shells of their eyelids began to droop, as the aching in their bones grew more painful even than their impatience. They understood that nothing could happen until the extinguishing of the last Member's lights. Eventually, with all possessing inner darkness," and Claudette began to weep in the speaking of it, "the ground began to shudder, the trees to shake their crackling tops and the moon came out."
The story could not outlast its telling, at least for the time being. The judge questioned Claudette with his eyes, but she placed a finger to her own eyes, like the pressing of a schoolteacher's finger upon buttoned lips in reaction to the classroom's noise.
Later in the proceedings, she picked up where she left off. "The wicked warm way to her heart was not through the eyes nor even the ears."
"But through what then?" he asked, knowing all the time that she had a story to finish...
"They carried her upon a makeshift litter from the woodland's random reaches. The moon had by now cast the stars to shame, both in size and brilliance, and then the Members crooned new songs, all with a fresh percipience. Even the moon listened to their threnodies. They traipsed paths that only existed because the weeds cringed from fear of being trampled. A wild beast yowled in the distance, so plaintively soft the moon might have been nearer. The Members forced their warm ways into her own cringing passages... and she died without even a whimper. Hang bang sang gang rang - the Order of Members met at her heart's wicked warmth and felt they were at the beginning of life..."
And at its end.
Claudette sobbed in the way the listener imagined the wild beast in the story to have sounded. Despite this she was determined to have the last word in the sentence: "There can be no pardon, because I was there to see their murder - and to suffer it. Unlike moonshine, starlight glows the whole universe through, if only weakly upon the likes of Earth." She smiled. "And I could see that their eyes were red as they walked away from me."
The judge immediately ordered the defendants to be taken from the court to the cells, only later to hear his last word. He sat back and removed the hot wig, glad that justice was to be carried out.
Notwithstanding the lack of a living victim, its ghost had supplied eye-witness evidence to ritual murder. The Act of Paranormality and Revenance (Legal Procedures and Jurisprudence) 1998 - he always carried this vast tome in his cape pocket. He did not need eyes in the back of his head. There's a wicked warm way ... bang hang gang ... he couldn't remove the rituals from his mind. But that was where they always had been.
Claudette had really deserved all the legal strength any such evidence could give her, but if ghosts could come to be trusted, what was the future of crimes ... indeed, what that of judges?
He would have to ask the moon...
Peter watched from a distance, Claudette's narrow back looking as if it belonged to someone younger than him, much much younger. The warm-winded place was a public park, but evidently not very public at this time of day, as they were the only two figures in anyone else's sight. The sun was so low in the sky, it looked as if the trees had caught fire. The far spikes of park railings made it necessary for Peter to shrug off thoughts of prison. It was only too easy for him to drift back on the tide of the past towards such preoccupations. He had settled his debt to society, had he not? No longer guilty, he had vowed to remain innocent for the rest of his life. So, he approached the solitary shape, trying to make as much noise as possible, scuffing his toe-caps through the brown leaves, coughing, sneezing, blowing his nose, laughing gently. He could now tell Claudette was breathing very heavily, as if she had very recently ceased a strenuous exercise, such as press-ups, limb-scissors or jogging on the spot. If he had not been scrutinising her for at least half an hour, Peter would have sworn she was fighting for her breath. Yet, upon hearing his increasing courtesies of racket, she swivelled. The face was a still life. The china doll skin. The already pursed rosebud of lips. The eyelids thrown back by a piercing stare. No sign of forced breathing. Simply a suspicion of air playing at the delicately chiselled nostrils. "Nice evening for the time of the year," Peter announced as calmly as possible. He wanted to ensure his innocence. He could not afford another slip-up. Past offenders must be beyond reproach. He bowed. He had almost curtsied in his eagerness to appear effete. She returned her back towards him, with renewed panting. He could even believe she was enduring a very difficult confinement - if it had not been for the slim profile of her body. The late shafts of the sun had silhouetted perfect breasts, carved the flattest stomach through the misty lace of her blouse.
"She was beautiful - more beautiful than I can explain," Peter found himself saying. The officer looked him over, as Peter forced out further words: "Her back rose and fell as if she needed help - perhaps she was sobbing - the breaths were broken, unrhythmic - but there had been no wetness under her eyes - was she choking on the wind, then, I asked myself, without understanding my own question." Peter could not bear talking about her, but what else should he have done? The cassette recorder had been switched on. If he did not speak into it, who would? Certainly not the officer. Such people were mean with words. No she was not crying, yet Peter had forgotten that he himself often cried without tears. "I asked her for a name," he continued, "but she remained facing away from me - I dared not cross her sight uninvited - I remained behind, letting her taunt me with no reply." The cassette recorder clicked off. The officer removed the tape, turned it over, replaced it and pressed a key, nodding at Peter in the last moments of the process. Peter thought of it bedded upon the spindles, as if this were its final resting-place, the coffin-lid fascia shut upon it, so that it could actually come alive inside. Such bizarre thoughts diverted him until he was prompted by the officer to speak. "Just before it got dark, she seemed to stop breathing altogether - I was so surprised - no, I was worried for her well-being - I smartly ran round to face her - she smiled at me - not dark enough to prevent me from seeing that - the cheeks were crazed over with hair-line cracks - she had to lean forward to keep the eyelids from closing - an act of gravity I could not entirely fathom - I took her hand and pulled the arm towards me, as it pivotted at the shoulder - the rubbery material of the fingers was almost like flesh to the feel - I believed she was dead and alive simultaneously - that was the only way I could explain it. Yet I can't explain it now - she was quite dead - you see she was dead before I touched her - she must have been."
The officer nodded and stopped a smile at the last moment, then crouched before Peter, staring up into Peter's eyes. Peter knew he was incriminated up to his neck. He looked pleadingly at the cassette recorder, literally begging it to tape someone else's words, someone else's guilt. In his innocence, he had loved Claudette, taken pity on a street whore, a foul dosseress, a female tramp, a female trap. The officer's eyelids drooped, snores blacking from his nostrils. That Peter had bored him stiff was the first daft idea that went through his head. The officer fell to the ground as the sun finally disappeared behind the trees. The cassette turned like twin swirls of dead leaves. Peter's own eyelids shuttered for the last time: a camera whose film would always be locked away inside the head. The wind, now colder, continued to shuttle brown leaves around his feet and to cut right through the thin blouse. He could not, will not cry. Yet he knew that prison was for the innocent - and dolls rarely had physical accoutrements of gender when Peter was a child...
"Ghosts often disguise themselves as ceilings", thought Claudette, while she placed her knife and fork neatly upon the plate. She thought the knife and fork would marry one day and live happily ever after. She had lots of such thoughts, like most people, some more ridiculous than others. But, thoughts of any kind are dangerous: they may lead to thoughts of death, thoughts of dire devils gnawing the soul's bottom bone, thoughts of the sun not rising tomorrow...
"Claudette, clear away the dishes, please." Her mother was lost in her own secret thoughts.
Claudette clattered in the sink for a while, while her mother used the same while to make herself up in the mirror. It was an important task since, without her face on, her mother felt vulnerable and semi-dressed. The powder was not exactly laid on with a trowel, but she was decidedly heavy-handed with the lipstick.
Claudette thought her mother looked like a clown when the face was finished. The daughter lightly pecked her on the rouged cheek, whilst drying her hands on the tea towel. Claudette wondered why they weren't called dinner towels or supper towels or breakfast towels or, even, sanitary towels. But she did not bother her mind with such considerations for long. The lipstick looked overdone, until Claudette realised that her mother had accidentally cut her tongue on her teeth during beakfast.
Mother and daughter used the same bus to get to work and school respectively. Claudette's mother earned her crust peeling potatoes and similar drudgery in a cafe, whilst Claudette was doing her A-levels in Maths, Geography and English.
This morning, the same bus was late, the sky grey. The tutting queue shuffled on its feet, mother and daughter towards the back (since they had been a trifle tardy). They felt they were part of a crocodile whose back itched, with nothing to use as a suitable scratcher. One umbrella was sufficient to cover both their bare heads during the onset of a heavy period of rain. Claudette wondered whether her mother's face would run.
A large car with ribbons splayed across the bonnet drove past. The pale blue bride in the back nodded at the queue, but nobody could see her face because of the frothy veil. The other passenger beside the bride kept a narrow profile, like a blade of darkness.
"Early in the morning for a wedding," thought Claudette aloud, looking at the clearing sky. The passengers had frightened her more than the departing clouds.
"Best to get it over with," said a gent in a bowler towards the front of the queue.
Claudette's mother looked daggers at him. And the bus arrived punctually, seeing it was the next one all the time. The queue quickly coiled on board.
"Weather's picking up for the wedding", said Claudette.
Her mother's smile was a red splodge, as she lowered the umbrella. Must get some towels at the chemist, before I forget, Claudette thought. She took a tiny coffin from her pocket and looked longingly at the thing inside that had once been Claude’s to wield.
The sky was by now a seamless, sunless ceiling of blue. Even free people have been imprisoned within their own bodies...
Peter scanned the telephone directory, debating whether this or that Etty was one of Claude's relatives or even Claude himself. It was sensible, of course, to begin with those with the surname Etty bearing the initial C. He prodded the numbers shown roughly midway down such Ettys and waited for the dialling tone to stop which would indicate, at best, a listening ear or, at worst, a deaf heavy-breather. The odds were that it would not be nobody, because a sane universe, in which Peter, incredibly, believed, prevented nobodies from being capable of picking up the handset of a telephone. As he hung on the line, he continued to brood over the various turnings that his life had recently taken, the strangest of which was the mistaken identity...
His thoughts were forgotten when the phone was at last answered, somewhere in an area of the city which Peter had never visited, but one containing a street where a certain C. Etty was said to reside by the usually dependable records of the directory - unless, of course, he or she had moved out since the directory was published.
"Hello." That was Peter's voice. He heard it echoing back at him.
"Hello, who's that?" This voice was decidedly feminine, belonging to a lady who probably feared that Peter was an anonymous caller about to ask her to describe the underwear which she was currently sporting.
"Excuse me, but I'm after someone called Etty. I don't suppose that he lives where you are."
She said something Peter couldn't decipher. Perhaps she insulted him with a name usually reserved for those of dubious parentage, upon assuming he was indeed a real anonymous caller.
His head rang. It felt as if a hard red leathery cricket-ball was lodged in the brain - and he looked towards the blotched ceiling in despair, fearing that the Holy Ghost only existed to bear witness to the world being crowded out with prisoners in their fleshy coffins and to rituals being inherited routines. Memories did not make a lifetime. He was in love with nobody. The next period of pain ensued. He sobbed liquid pearls at the jagged shards inside. And blood was trying to escape.
So, after all, it had only been an answer-phone, he recalled, with nobody recorded on the tape.