Nails Without Pictures

Originally published in Nocturne (2006)

At first, Jack had been convinced the thing was some twisted little urchin’s idea of a toy. But then he’d cut open its belly and something like semi-liquefied worms had glistened through the skewed slit of his inexpert incision.

Some small part of him was relieved. If it had proved to be a toy, what little faith he’d had in today’s baffling youth would have evaporated in a moment. What kind of child would take pleasure in such a thing? Other than the fact that it was only eight inches long, from lank-haired head to what toes remained, it looked like something exhumed from a mass grave: emaciated, almost skeletal, flesh like filthy wet linen, drawn tight over disproportionate bone. The thought of a child playing with the thing, dressing it, positioning its limbs just so, turning its head this way and that…

It was only a small part of him that experienced this relief, of course, a brittle fragment. The rest of him was terrified, terrified in the same way he imagined his sister must have been terrified during those dreadful moments of pin-sharp clarity that had punctuated the earlier stages of her Alzheimer’s.

Jack had come across the little corpse whilst waging war on the army of weeds that had invaded the borders in the back garden. It had been buried only a foot or so under, next to a small pinkish shrub; a shrub he couldn’t name and didn’t like (he wondered why he’d planted the hideous thing in the first place; he certainly had no memory of doing so). It had been interred, this miniature Holocaust victim, in a shoe box – damp, now, and sagging – the lid held in place by thick elastic bands, the kind postmen leave trailing behind them on the pavement, like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs.

After his first glimpse of the thing (the lid barely lifted), it had stayed on the kitchen table for two days, surrounded by old magazines, newspapers and unopened mail. He’d done his best to ignore it but the smell – the stink of it – kept drawing his attention, like an arm outstretched and waving: here I am; me, me, me. Flies were equally drawn, circling, landing, but only for a second or so, as if it was too much for even them, the smell or, perhaps, the idea of the thing.

So, he’d rescued a greasy knife from the stagnant waters of the washing up bowl. And here he was, staring, something like semi-liquefied worms bulging now through the ham-fisted slit he’d made.

He didn’t sleep well that night. His dreams were of tiny cemeteries, tiny coffins, tiny corpses and maggots so minuscule they might have been mistaken for a fine, white dust. The next morning, he trudged downstairs and slouched in the kitchen doorway like a teenager, staring at the shoe box and wondering what to do, wondering what the thing in the shoe box actually was.

“Breakfast,” he decided (though he wasn’t the least bit hungry). “Can’t be expected to deal with all this nonsense on an empty stomach.” He congratulated himself on his use of the word “nonsense”. That’s what all this was, after all, wasn’t it? Nonsense. A miniature corpse buried in a shoe box in his back garden? If that wasn’t nonsense then he was damned if he knew what was.

He tried to make porridge but the resultant paste was tasteless and he scraped it into the already over-burdened pedal bin. A cup of tea, then, and some toast. The tea was stewed, the toast black at the edges, but at least it was edible. With his stomach partially filled, he returned his attention to the sodden coffin and the little corpse, tried to get to grips with the whole nasty business. But he couldn’t. His thoughts seemed to bend away from the topic, repelled by its unlikelihood.

He decided he’d ambush the matter. Bury himself in some other activity, then pounce on the subject just when it thought itself beneath his interest.

“Housework,” he said, clapping his hands as if summoning the battalion of domestics that would surely be needed to return the house to some semblance of order. The place was a shambles, a bloody pigsty. He wasn’t certain how it had fallen into such an appalling state. He had a clear memory of it in precisely the opposite condition, but that seemed like such a long time ago now.

It took him a while to assemble the vacuum cleaner and get it working, but he managed it. The washing machine proved too much; he just couldn’t make sense of the bloody thing, all those buttons and dials and meaningless symbols. In the end, he stuffed all his washing into bin bags, which he placed in the porch, ready for the launderette. It was hours later – practically nightfall – when he declared his task complete. In truth, he had only rearranged the rubbish into neat piles, around which he’d dusted and vacuumed. He’d wiped down surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen but had only succeeded in reassigning the grime and grease to neighbouring locations.

One room, the room next to his bedroom, he’d left untouched. He’d meant to include it in his cleaning itinerary, but every time he’d tried to enter the room, his mind had unearthed some other chore requiring his immediate attention, and so he just hadn’t got round to it. Tomorrow, perhaps.

He sat down at the kitchen table.

“Right,” he said, addressing the shoe box, “what’s all this about then?” He realised as soon as he spoke that the housework had not been part of some elaborate ambushing strategy at all. He had simply been avoiding thinking about the little corpse in the shoebox. He’d been stalling, plain and simple.

“Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” he said and tried to smile but shivered instead. Someone used to say that to him, didn’t they? Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? That’s your philosophy, isn’t it? Who? Who’d said that?

I’m sixty-three, Jack. There are a lot less tomorrows than there used to be. She’d said that, too.

She?

She.

“Dot,” he whispered. He began to stroke the shoe box, then, as if it was a living thing he was trying to comfort, a pet. He rocked back and forth in his chair, tears he felt he had no right to shining on his cheeks.

After a while, and sniffing like a child with a cold, he went out to the shed and fetched a spade. Using the spade as a makeshift walking stick – he suddenly felt so old – he made his way to the little pink shrub; the one he’d never liked. The hole was still there, but half-filled with rainwater, now, and a few dead leaves. To the left of the hole, he started to dig. It wasn’t long before he met with resistance; something not too solid, and the rustle of polythene like pleuritic breathing. He peered down, past the earth-clogged spade, and saw precisely what he’d known he would see: a magazine wrapped in plastic. He took it from the hole and wiped it clean with a handful of wet leaves.

Once back in the kitchen, he eased the magazine from its plastic wrapping. But, of course, it wasn’t a magazine; he’d known that, too. It was a university prospectus. On its crumpled cover, several young girls stood in an ornate red brick archway, textbooks clutched to their chests.

When Dot had first shown him the thing and had expressed a passing interest in going to university (“bettering” herself, as she’d called it), he’d indulged her with a smile and “That sounds like a great idea” and had been convinced the subject would never come up again.

But it had. It had kept coming up. Incessantly. He’d tried being blunt with her. She didn’t need to go to university. What was the point? She was retired for God’s sake; they both were. What purpose could a degree possibly serve?

“It would make me feel good about myself, for one thing, Jack.”

He’d taken that personally and a row had erupted.

But he couldn’t dissuade her. She had just been waiting for some details and then all she’d had to do was fill in a few forms, sign a few papers. Jack hadn’t known what to do.

A flippant and thoughtless remark had held the answer.

They’d been watching Fifteen-to-One, one afternoon and William G. Stewart had asked a question (Jack couldn’t even remember what it was now) which Dot had answered incorrectly.

“Don’t you even know that?” Jack had said. His voice had curled with contempt. “A bloody school kid would have got that right.” Dot had looked embarrassed, a little sad, and a plan had suggested itself to Jack.

At every opportunity, he’d put her down, belittle her.

“I’ll be up to bed later, love. There’s a film I want to watch. You wouldn’t like it. Subtitles.”

“This is a bloody marvelous book, Dot, but I think it’d probably be a bit over your head. Stick to your Catherine Cookson; you like her, don’t you?”

“I’m off to the pub. Quiz night. You can tag along, if you want, but you’ll probably feel a bit of a spare part.”

And he’d taken to asking her questions he’d been certain she wouldn’t know the answers to. Frequently, he hadn’t known the answers himself until he’d looked them up in the encyclopaedia.

At first, he’d thought it was the little stoop she’d developed that had made her seem smaller, but then her clothes had started to seem slack and over-sized. Shortly after that, she’d lost her wedding ring.

“It must have just slipped off,” she’d said. “I feel so stupid.”

He’d known what was happening by then but he’d been unable to stop himself from bellowing at her. He’d tried to convince himself he was angry because she’d lost something so valuable, something irreplaceable, but as he’d subjected her to a barrage of insults, her university application form, unsigned, had seemed like a glaring white window against the dark wood of the coffee table.

When Dot had left the room, the doorway had seemed huge, had reminded Jack of the archway on the front of the prospectus. That memory had encouraged him to throw one last remark at his retreating wife.

“You’ll be losing your mind next, never mind your bloody wedding ring!”

The next day, Dot had been unable to get out of bed. Her head ached, she’d said. She’d ached all over. And she hadn’t been able to think straight. The duvet had swamped her, making her look like a child. “Am I getting smaller?”

“Don’t be silly, love,” Jack had replied. “The strange ideas you get in that silly little head of yours.”

Even when she had missed the final date to send in her application form, he’d been unable to stop himself from belittling her at every opportunity. It had become a kind of habit, strangely comforting. He’d wanted to stop, but the thought of her suddenly blossoming back to health had filled him with dread. He had been ashamed, of course, but his fear had been greater. Every night he’d dreamed the same dream. Something had been chasing him, something huge and powerful. He would become convinced the thing was about to pounce, its rapid footfalls like thunder or gunfire. But, instead, it would race past him, brush him aside, send him spinning. By the time he’d get to his feet, it would be gone and he’d be alone, wondering why the thing hadn’t wanted him, why it had left him behind.

He’d been feeding Dot babies’ rusks mashed up in warm milk when she’d died. She hadn’t spoken for days. The last thing she’d said had been, “I had such big plans, Jack, and now look at me.” She’d laughed but it had been such a tiny sound he’d had to leave the room, his hands shaking.

He’d buried her (and the prospectus) that night, next to her favourite shrub, and as he’d shoveled soil onto the old shoe box, an inky stain had seemed to spread through his mind, obliterating his memories, until he’d wondered what the hell he was doing out in the garden in the middle of the night, a spade in his hands and tears on his cheeks.

In the weeks that had followed, he had been repeatedly confronted by photographs and ornaments, articles of clothing and bottles of perfume or hand lotion, all sorts of things that had threatened to remind him of Dot and the tiny thing he’d reduced her to. And each time, dizzy as if he’d stood up too quickly, he’d taken the item in question, holding it at arm’s length as if it were something poisonous and spitting, and had placed it in the spare room. Looking about him now, he was amazed at just how little was left once all things Dot had been removed. The mantelpiece was bare; display cabinets stood empty like abandoned vehicles; the walls bristled with nails from which no pictures hung.

And how like those nails he suddenly felt. Stripped of purpose and meaning. A bent and ugly thing, protruding from the surface of life. Unadorned; small and unnecessary.

He walked over to one of the nails, raised a hand to pluck it from the wall, and his watch –

The watch. Dot had given it to him on his fortieth birthday. It was beautiful, delicate but solid. Months prior to his birthday, he’d seen it in a jeweller’s window in the city centre.

“That’s a handsome thing, isn’t it?” he’d said to Dot.

She’d just nodded with no real interest. By the time they’d arrived home, Jack had forgotten all about it. He’d been “flabbergasted” when he’d unwrapped the last of his birthday presents and the flickering lights of the forty candles on his cake had danced in miniature in the watch’s face.

He walked over to one of the nails, raised a hand to pluck it from the wall, and his watch slithered from his wrist down to his elbow.

Smiling with something like relief – his punishment had arrived at last – he dropped his arm by his side and the watch slid down from his elbow, over his hand and dropped onto the floor. He left it where it had fallen and went off in search of a shoe box.

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