Short fiction by Jay Merill
He walks up to the warehouse, opens the door and sits down, sits right across the aperture, half out half in and shouts. Here I am. He’s not in hiding any more, not even from himself. He screws his eyes up. There are tears in them. As he sits on the threshold he calls out: Give me answers. The panic in him makes the words sound garbled. They crash gratingly into the surrounding silence. He’s come back here because he wants things settled; isn’t sure how much longer he can carry on. He thinks back to the way things were:
Wednesday in the rain, seven o clock, Razz sitting in this café with a cappuccino, sees her outside the window, sheltering. Blonde hair wet, sand on a night beach. She’s staring at passing cars, at the sloshing water thrown up, looking left and right but never in through the café window, never at him. She won’t look, it would be too much of a give-away. He wills her to turn and catch his eye. Any other person would have glanced at what was behind them – she doesn’t look back once. He’s starting to take it personally. It’s a refusal. He asks no more than for her to turn and look him in the eye, this he would count as a victory and be done, he’d be satisfied. But she holds out against him, pretending to brush rainwater from her mac, patting at the sides of her hair, curving it round with her hands towards her cheek. Refusing and denying him, pretending he doesn’t exist. She knew he’d be in this place before she even got here, the rain’s a good excuse. Kathleen is her name. The name that goes with the face, the face that goes with the birdlike body. Kathleen. He knows her tricks and weaknesses
The sky’s clearing, she’s moving on. Razz gets up, slides into his leather coat, admiring himself in the café mirror – because he knows she watches him he’s extra conscious of his appearance. Loves it that this coat shines darkly, flaps like heavy leaves, making him feel part of the night. It gives him the feeling he can slip invisibly through shadow. Not that he’s invisible to her. She’s obsessed with him. This, though flattering and comforting, makes him angry. He goes out, follows her along the street. Late summer, wet night, pull of the evening air. Nothing clear cut, just outlines in orange light. Woman in shadow. Reflections. Standing by shop fronts listening to the rain run down walls. A Wednesday night. He’d been born on a Wednesday. Full of woe. The woe, grey coloured and insistent is out there waiting for him somewhere he has no doubt but he doesn’t allow himself to dwell on it.
Dark puddle water. She, in her mini-mac goes skittering across. Quick glance round to the left, all so natural, to put him off the scent, but it’s a ruse.When she reaches the Purple Elephant restaurant in she goes, just as he knew she would. She’s meeting up with friends, and the friends aren’t much. They laugh out loud in a variety of pitches sounding like sheep on a night hillside and talk the stupidest crap going. He’s heard them telling these pathetic jokes which he doesn’t even get, and then they all come out with this bleating laughter. But he bets they don’t find the jokes funny either. He’s listened in to see if she’s made any mention of him. She hasn’t of course, much too clever for that. He’s sure none of the others know what is really going on with her. Her secret vice. He is her secret vice. Razz brings his teeth together with a chop.
Should he go in the place too or forget it? He walks past the door but then turns back.
Yes. He needs to know what she’s up to. She won’t find out he’s rumbled her as long as he doesn’t take the wrong kind of chances, like making eye contact or being in her frame of vision for too long at a time. Stepping inside he blinks in the dim bluish light, watching Kathleen as she joins a group near the far wall. Then he walks out again. He’s seen all he needs to see. She always sits in the same place with the same bunch of people. Clever, the way she sets up normal looking situations, with alibis she can call on later if needs be. But she’s so predictable his stalker. A creature of habit.
The following week. He gets to the BarToledo well before Kathleen or any of her crowd. Being a Tuesday it’s Karaoake. Two girls, one bear-like the other rabbit-like, are clutching mics, egging each other on. Half laughing half crying, a whimper of song puffing out of them, a wheeze of words, their breath lost before the end of the line. A few Baby’s, a few clicks of the hips, their bum hugging skirts wrinkling up, the audience getting an eyeful. Not that the audience is audience exactly – one or two loners smirk across by the bar, nobody else pays the girls any attention. The air is loud with spun talk. Razz saunters past the girls as they whine and stutter on doing an old Spice Girls number, craning their necks to the mic, sometimes failing to connect. He walks to the back of the pub, gets a beer and sits innocuously at one of the tables on the side, picking up a paper to idle away time with and hide behind. Doesn’t want Kathleen seeing him as soon as she gets here, let her sweat a bit, do a bit of worrying. Why should it be easy? He wants to see her stretch and strain, look searchingly everywhere losing her caution because she doesn’t know he’s here. Time passes. He’s looked at all the headlines in the paper, nothing to interest. More trash about celebs, especially royal celebs. The whole world’s a sad place. The wheezing girls finish, a few claps and jeers, and then another voice. Shrill and thin this time, missing all the high notes; a voice offering sex, but who’d want it?
And then Kathleen comes in with a couple of others. But he only registers her. Is she looking at him? Her mates sit down at once but she just stands there saying something and shuffling about a bit. She’s still in her mac and he sees goodbyes are being said. Then she starts to move off. It’s a Tuesday, of course. She goes home early. The procedure is, she’ll follow him a bit first, making sure he’s still there. He knows her, knows the pattern of her movements by now. You can’t be followed for weeks on end without learning something. This is the mistake she makes.
She hasn’t seen him at all. He’s irritated. What right has she got to ignore him, should’ve looked a bit harder. She walks down on the other side of the bar tossing her hair back. He gets it at last. She’s looking for him.
‘I’m right here,’ he whispers.
If she’d once looked back he might have shouted it. She doesn’t though, just keeps on going. Already she’s out of sight. He jumps up and practically runs, skirting the groups standing around for the karaoke. Yes, he was right. Looking for him, wasn’t she. He’s elated.
He rushes along, past the latest singers, two men, in tune this time, but without spirit, looking half dazed as if they’d recently been hit over the head. Grey and flabby figures gazing out over the assembled groups as though they expect some sort of applause. They sway listlessly. It amazes Razz the sort of people who want to show themselves off like this, the very ones who should be invisible. He goes out, rattled. Then, as soon as he sees Kathleen the truth hits him. She isn’t looking for him, she’s already seen him and is leading him on. It’s as clear as day.
She crosses over the road and stands in a shop doorway, a shadowy unreal image. He squints, turning his head as though he’s looking in another direction. Really he’s watching her though, through the sides of his eyes. It’s clever the way he does this, appears natural. Clever. She’s on the mobile, looking away from him towards the shop window. Probably a con trick to cover up her real intentions, but still it bothers him. Look at me, part of him wants to call out. On the phone like this, traitorous, uncaring, forgetting he exists.
And then, unbelievably, he realises she’s watching him. This phone-thing really is a trick. She’s watching him in the window, not speaking to anyone on the mobile. His heart begins to churn violently inside him the minute he sees the reflection of her eyes. In the glass, clear as in a mirror, she is watching him getting closer. One or two people pass by but she doesn’t even register them. He goes hot with pleasure. For what is a man without a stalker? A nobody at all. To be somebody’s secret vice. It’s a turn on. And Razz has a sudden delicious sense of belonging, he feels owned. He’s the pet, the puppet of his stalker. The thought draws a smile out of him. Almost, what would he be without her. Why, he’d be alone. When these words strike him they take the smile away. But he brushes them off at once. She fancies the arse off him he doesn’t doubt. Look, she sees only him.
The next moment she turns suddenly, starts walking in that slinky way she has, goes along the road at full speed but jerkily, hopping at kerbstones, fatally birdlike. There’s a light and feathery carelessness about her. She’s a bit shambolic and all over the place, one minute on the edge of the pavement, the next on the inside next to the wall. The way she walks, looking sometimes at him, or at least near to him, makes his head spin. But it’s natural for your head to spin, he tells himself. It’s a circular world in which everything is constantly revolving. And anyway he’s detected there’s this fixed purpose to her, so he doesn’t really have to worry. She’s going in the direction of home. Christ, but she’s a creature of habit, his pursuer. So predictable. And seeing this gives him a feeling of peace. He estimates it will take her about fifteen minutes at the rate she’s going, unless she takes the short-cut, then it’d be ten. He will follow where she leads. One alarming thought flashes through him: What if she’s pretending? Not going home really, just putting on a little show. She could go in her front door, wait for a bit, and when the coast’s clear come out again. No, he discounts it.
Yes, she’s going for the short cut tonight as though in a hurry to get home. It’s funny, he suddenly thinks as he goes along, how Kathleen’s set it all up to make it seem as if he’s the one who’s doing the pursuing, making everything the reverse of the actual truth. Very ironic. He’s only doing exactly what he’s been beckoned to do. Yes, he says to himself as if in evidence, as if in a dock where he is questioned about his intentions. He’s only following her because that’s precisely what, precisely what………… I am nothing, he can’t help muttering, as though these words will exempt and excuse him for any transgressions of which he may be accused. Kathleen. He’s humble, he does not expect. But if she, because it’s her wish or whim, if she should be there and calling to him, well, he’s human isn’t he. He’ll not deny her if he is what she wants.
Come to me, is the plea he can hear in the quick striding forward of her legs.
Please. Say the word and all will be granted to you.
As he quickens his pace in response, Razz becomes aware of running feet. It’s Kathleen. She’s running fast down the narrow footpath ahead of him, some noise coming from her. Sounds like screaming. Yes, she’s racing, racing, and the screams he can hear are coming from her very own lips.
‘Stop that, Stop!’ he yells. As she surges away from him down this dark small road, almost an alley-way. Why would she be here in this alley and running, if not to invite, and incite, and call to him. Why would she?
But, ‘Get away from me,’ is what he hears, if his ears are not deceiving him. Here in reality, if this is reality. He’s not so sure any more. Bitter words.
‘Kathleen,’ he calls out to her, running himself now so he won’t be left behind. So she’ll hear him; so she’ll know he’s right here with her, as deep down she wants him to be. It’s all gone black and blind this night, wet leaves of leather, stark wind and sky. Shall he call out again, or…?
Kathleen, running home through the short cut, he Razz, following close behind her because she wants him to, he knows very well she wants him to. Oh where will it end?
‘Stop the bloody screaming. Wait!’
Razz hangs about on the street but there’s no sign of her once she’s gone in her door. He’ll have to wait though, rain or no rain, because she could slip out, couldn’t she, after going home in an ordinary seeming way. He’s come round to suspecting this is exactly what she’ll do and he wants to be at the ready. He curses her and the wet of the night. The lights in her flat go off, but even so, he says to himself she could be doing this to fool him. And then slam, slam, he’s right there against a really bad thought. Does she know he’s aware she’s following him? Does she after all? Yes. Yes. It’s come to him clear as a light now, standing here outside her place, on the other side of the street. She’s set the whole thing up hasn’t she, and has been trying it on with him for God knows how long. That’s why there’s this coming home routine and all the lights off to deceive him. She wouldn’t need to be bothering with all of this stuff otherwise. He feels a moment’s pride that he’s putting her through it, that she’ll be unable to relax, then his mood sinks. She is so clever, look at her, going into the house, putting all the lights off. Maybe she’s even watching him through one of the dark windows. Christ yes, he bets she is. How can he get out of that one? Pretend he’s just walking by? Pretend he’s trying to light a cigarette in the rain? Oh shit. Well if she’s twigged he’s onto her anyway, couldn’t he just confront her, warn her off, come on heavy and put the frighteners on her. Would serve her right. The thought gives him some satisfaction.
At last he goes back to his place, but by the time he’s poured himself a beer and switched on the tv he’s started wondering if she’s outside watching him with binoculars, watching his every move. Well he’s not going to fucking well look and start behaving the way she wants him to. She’ll find out he’s not so predictable and she’s setting him up in vain. For a while he resists but the belief that she may be outside his window looking in, gets stronger. Finally he puts out the lights and goes over, beer in one hand, remote in the other. He stares out cautiously from the side of the window. But, nothing and nobody. Unless she’s behind one of the cars parked across the way. In fact he’s almost sure he can see an unnaturally moving shadow, as of somebody ducking down in haste. A sharp, jolting dart of movement. He draws the curtain quickly. She makes him laugh, thought of her out there hoping for him. He waits three, maybe four minutes then he tugs the curtain open, switches all the lights full on.
‘Ok Baby.’ He pulls off his clothes and stands naked at the window; caresses himself in full view of the outside street. Give her an eyeful.
Nearing winter. He sees Kathleen in the street. Going unevenly along, her birdlike gait. Looks at him once or twice when she flicks her head, and once or twice more when she crosses streets. She catches his eye, then goes on down this long road that runs parallel with the river. Hardly anywhere for him to hide. It’s the usual, she’s drawing him, leading him forward. The idea is sweet yet it gives him a pain of anger – the idea he’s being controlled. He’s never said he wanted to be lead, has he? If he liked he could turn around right now and fuck off and leave her to it. That’d be cool, to leave her in the middle of this little game of hers. He has the thought but even so he goes on following her down the road with scarcely any hiding place. At last she turns off into a warehouse yard.
When Razz comes up he sees there’s a door in the grey crumbly brick wall. She must’ve gone through it, there is nowhere else. He crosses to the door cautiously, turns the handle, enters. A kind of inside/outside corridor in which all the windows are broken. Through the empty spaces he can see the river, brown, fast moving. His feet make a scuffling sound on the gritty floor. He thinks of calling out, Kathleen, where are you? but doesn’t though, just keeps on walking in the direction of the muddy brown water. And then he stops. Three men are standing up ahead, one swinging a bike chain. That same minute he is hit from behind, hit between the shoulder blades but not hard enough to bring him down. His body falls forward and he’s caught by both his arms which are then, crackingly, pinioned to his back.
He is spun round, sees some angry, some amused, faces. One of the amused faces opens its mouth and spits towards his right eye. It half gets there. He feels a wet trickle against his corner lashes; has an urge to wipe it away but can’t. They spin him round again so fast it makes him blink. He sees a blur of smashed windows, small square metal frames with weeds blowing in the apertures; the river. If only he could get to it. Razz pictures himself diving into the deep muddy brown. It would be soft and would carry him away on its tide. He blinks again. Kathleen is standing in front of him; her mouth contemptuous, hissing words.
‘Stalker’, she accuses. ‘You pervy bastard. You’ve been stalking me.’
‘No,’ he cries out.
Kathleen raises up her right arm, holds her hand above his head as though she’s going to spell out his destiny. Death or absolution. He sees her fingers very close in front of his eyes; feels a prickle of something on his right cheek.
And then one of the men: ‘If you come round here again you’re fucking meat.’
And another voice: ‘Come back here and you’re in that river, sacked up.’
A third: ‘We see you again and you’re dead.’
Razz, flinching now. Pain becoming agony. Expecting the worst he tries to brace himself, but he’s gone limp and shaky. He stares about him but not at anything in particular, sees a few blown wisps of green. Weeds coming in the broken windows. Weeds and tendrils which sway just a bit in the breeze.
Then they let go of his arms and he hangs forward from the waist for a moment. She, Kathleen, stands a little way back a cat-like hiss roaming through her face, making her lips spurt, revealing teeth. But she doesn’t speak to him again, doesn’t say a word. And is he glad about this, or sorry? He stands there weakly until one of the laughing ones knees him in the balls and he’s down.
Corner of the warehouse, the great empty space spreading out to one side of him. Dusty. Still the weeds at the broken windows. Razz sneezes through the pain as he falls to his corner. It jars him – a sharp unnecessary increase of all his suffering. It’s comical in a way, sad but comical. Kathleen’s lips of contempt are what he carries with him throughout the dark hours in which surprisingly he does sleep. Rats run the night through, wide awake, yet he feels some kinship with them, remembers their asymmetrical scurrying in the morning when they’ve departed. Isn’t sure how he knows they were there, he’d been cold to the world. A dead man, but not quite.
Morning light, Razz awake and needing to get out. Where is he? He sees the glassless window squares and all that weediness.
‘Where is this?’ He pulls his stiff aching body up, and remembers by the time he’s half way across the empty space.
A warehouse with a wide and dirty floor. He paddles through dust, steers himself away from the interior, towards door, towards street. One foot first, then the other. He’s getting there slowly. He knows he could have been dead and past caring, could have been a gonner altogether. But it didn’t happen – he’s here. Out now and into the road. No cars about, it’s early it seems. Just him and his footsteps. The road runs along by the river.
Going home, he sees people stare at him, his face is bad he expects. He avoids contact with mirrors, shiny surfaces. His right cheek stings from chin to up under the eye, he imagines a long snaking stripe. He must look a sight. As he limps along a storm comes on out of nowhere. Howling thunder, continuous sheeted rain. Rain. The story of his life.
Afterwards, a soggy world. All the newspaper pages which flap wetly on the street, the cardboard of beggars’ retreats, the clothes of people who pass him tell the same story. And the sky’s not so clear even yet. There could be more. Razz doesn’t care, he’s suddenly started feeling horribly lonely. Life seems without aim and purpose, he’s lost something he used to have.
As he paces through the rooms in his flat he frequently looks behind him as though to catch a sight of Kathleen fleetingly standing by a shop window, or going in through the door of the Purple Elephant. He knows he won’t but he’s always disappointed when he finds she isn’t there. Having a stalker of your own makes you a somebody, it makes you needed. There’s someone out there who can’t do without you. Being stalked means you’re never alone. Just look back and there they’ll be, the he or the she who is living just for you. Razz stands behind his window looking out. She isn’t there. He’s been forgotten, that’s the truth of it. There’s nobody watching him! He may as well be dead.
He’d kicked memory of the warehouse far away. It was a banished thought. But then it came back. Shockingly, it felt like the most real place in the world, the only place it was right for him to be. He was lured away by Kathleen to the warehouse where the baddies were waiting to get him. But they didn’t finish him. Why not? They could have, it would have been easy. It didn’t make sense, it niggled him. All that luring and leading on and then when she had finally got him there they did him very little damage. A kick or two, a scratch, it wasn’t so much. Through the small square windows was the river where they could have dumped him.
He has come back here because he couldn’t stay away any longer. There’s something he needs to know and he’s started to look upon the warehouse as the place where all life’s answers may be stored. Because it has come to the point where he feels he just can’t keep going otherwise. He’s in the dark, so to speak and he’s tired of this. The difficulty is that, though he’s desperate for an answer he can hardly bring himself to formulate the question. Guilt and innocence. The two words chase each other round in his mind, but he doesn’t seem able to get any further. Guilt, or innocence. Something that he needs to know. Quick flash-shot of a girl on an empty night street. He, a victim of circumstance. She, a cunning devilish creature, watching him, always watching. He, the watched, aware of all her schemes. She the tormentor; he the preyed upon. Razz looks across the dusty space. Its emptiness makes him shiver.