Undressed Wounds

Originally published in Fusing Horizons (2004)

At first, I thought it was a dead chick: one of those barely feathered near-foetuses you stumble across every now and then while out walking in the woods. I wondered how it had got there: in the attic, on top of a pile of newspaper clippings, themselves stacked upon a small tower of battered suitcases containing my wife’s favourite clothes. Scrutinising the thing (squinting, as if this would somehow make up for the naked 60-watt bulb’s lack of generosity), I was proved wrong. It wasn’t a chick at all. And it wasn’t dead. It was a foetus of sorts, however; I’d got that much right. It was vaguely simian, with the consistency and colouring of regurgitated liquorice. It pulsed and twitched, its tiny, gluey mouth opening and closing, its grimy eyes rolling.

Drenched in sweat and so hot I felt certain ribbons of steam must have been curling up and away from me to condense on the ceiling, I went back downstairs and tried to lose myself in the closing chapters of Robinson Crusoe. I clutched the book as if it were the only thing tethering me to reality; a paperback anchor. I trembled – really shook – caught at the centre of my own personal earthquake. There had been no foetus, I told myself. No foetus. No. Foetus. The thing I had seen in the attic – had thought I’d seen – had been a hallucination, a side effect of the cocktail of anti-depressants I’d come to depend upon over the last couple of years. The earthquake began to subside. I dared to grip the book a little less tightly.

Robinson Crusoe had been Kate’s most cherished book. She had read the copy I was holding a dozen times or more; it was tatty and spineless with a chocolate thumbprint on the frontispiece. If you turned to the back cover and tipped it just so, you could see the imprint of a shopping list in Kate’s delirious handwriting: carrots, potatoes, broccoli, 2 tins tomatoes, custard. I’d tried to read the book (at Kate’s insistence) on a number of occasions but had never progressed further than halfway. I think, perhaps, I’d been unable to empathise fully with Crusoe’s isolation. Not so now, of course. I could walk through Liverpool city centre on a crowded Saturday afternoon and feel completely alone, certain my voice would echo were I to raise it, even a little.

With only the final chapter left to read, I went up to bed. I could have finished it (Doctor Hale would undoubtedly have said I should have finished it: ‘closure’ and such like), but I hadn’t wanted to. I was afraid that another memory of Kate would have evaporated had I let my eyes fall upon the final words of that final chapter; a memory of Kate in which she said, “You’ve got to read it, Steven. Please, it’s fantastic. Don’t be such a boring fart.” Then she would have swatted me a few times with the old paperback before reiterating the point that I was a “boring fart”, tutting and leaving me to whatever tedious political biography I happened to be coldly engrossed in at the time.

Sleep would have nothing to do with me. I lay in bed, staring up at the dim, white ceiling. Within minutes, it was swarming with terrible images; a cinema screen assaulted by multiple projectors. The images were of Kate, but they weren’t memories. I had witnessed none of the events that played out on the ceiling above me, but my imagination had done an impeccable job of reconstructing them in my mind. These simulations sat smugly next to my legitimate memories, as if to say, you’re no better than we are. To be honest, I sometimes have difficulty telling them apart myself.

Outside, a cat made a sound so warped and strange as to seem synthesised. I sat up, sliding a hand over my damp forehead and onward until, eventually, it encountered my retreating hairline. It was no good. The thing had been real. The near-foetus thing. It hadn’t been a hallucination at all. It had been real. I’d seen it: pulsing and twitching, the colour and consistency of regurgitated liquorice, mouth opening and closing, grimy eyes rolling.

At just gone two-thirty in the morning, I shaved, showered, dressed and returned to the attic. The thing was still there, of course. I had no idea what it might be. I only knew that it was there, that it was real. I considered calling a doctor but the thought of someone taking the thing away brought me inexplicably to the verge of a panic attack. It was up to me to look after it, to feed it, to keep it alive, to help it grow. I reached forward and stroked one of its rudimentary arms with my fingertip. Its body was moist and my finger came away smelling of yeast and burnt sugar.

I went down to the kitchen, stumbling on the stairs, almost falling, my legs suddenly boneless and comical. Food: what would it eat, a thing like that? Milk seemed the obvious choice. I warmed some in a pan and took it back up to the attic, along with a teaspoon. My head felt strange, fuzzy. Fast-moving shadows loomed in and out of my peripheral vision. I’d suffered blackouts before, lots of them after Kate’s death, but this was different, almost as if my mind was trying to keep me focussed on the task in hand, excluding distractions.

I eased the milk into its lipless mouth and it accepted hungrily, not a drop wasted, its legs kicking a little, as if it were trying to swim. I fed it for an hour or so, shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the attic with pans of milk (and when the milk ran out, whisked egg, and then liver pâté). Its appetite was immense, grotesquely disproportionate to its size, and the food it was consuming didn’t really appear to be going anywhere; its stomach swelled a little but that was all.

With the food finished, its eyes clipped shut and it was asleep. I decided to move it, to take it downstairs, somewhere warm. At first, I thought it was stuck, the glutinous substance covering its body adhering it to the newspaper clippings upon which it lay. As I looked closer, however, I saw that it was rooted to the clippings, fine, dark tendrils worming out from the base of its spine, fusing with the old headlines and grainy images.

And then – in a dark flash, like a cloud of ink blossoming in the wake of a panicked squid – I knew precisely what it was that was growing in my attic, and I knew why I’d been so fearful of someone taking it away from me. I knew but I didn’t want to think about what I knew. I took my revelation, folded it in half, in half again, in half again – unimaginative origami – and tossed it to the back of my mind, thinking, Maybe later, when I’m feeling a little less fragile…

Exhausted – gravity suddenly dragging at me, persecuting me – I went to bed. I hadn’t felt so tired in years. It was a pleasant feeling, however. It wasn’t weariness. It was more like the delightful, physical implosion you experience the moment immediately following a merciless and lengthy tickling.

I slept soundly, not waking until almost three o’clock the following afternoon. I showered, dressed, ate some toast, drank some coffee, returned to the attic.

Already, it was the size of a two year-old child. It still had that regurgitated consistency. It still rolled its eyes mindlessly, its mouth searching desperately for food. It was still rooted to the stack of newspaper clippings, crumpling the headlines: “… CLAIMS SEVENTH VICTIM…”, “… POLICE CLUELESS…”, “… WILL OF GOD…”

I wanted to kill it. There and then. Slow. Painful.

Instead, I went down to the kitchen and made it some porridge. As I watched the oats thickening and emulsifying in the pan, I realised that that was precisely what I had been doing when the police had arrived two years ago to tell me they had found Kate’s body.

“… terribly sorry, Mr Walsh…”

“… can’t begin to imagine, sir…”

“… just no words to…”

“… same killer, but we can’t be certain…”

“… a full forensic examination, I’m afraid…”

“… counsellors are available, if you think, perhaps, you might…”

“… cup of tea, Mr Walsh…”

“… really ought to sit down…”

“… cup of tea, Mr Walsh…”

“… kettle on, then, shall I?”

“… ought to sit down…”

“… of tea, sir…”

“… down…”

Abruptly, I was on the cold, tiled floor. The wooden spoon – clotted with porridge – still gripped in my fist. Judging by the wintry ache in my kidneys, it was quite a while later when I climbed to my feet, using the fridge for support. It vibrated beneath my palm, comforting. I turned toward the small pine table, half expecting to see the two policemen sat there looking inexperienced and embarrassed, but that had been two years ago and the kitchen was empty. There was just me, the humming fridge and a mess to clean up.

The thing in the attic ate its porridge greedily, clicking its stubby teeth against the metal spoon. Once I had finished feeding it its breakfast, I tied a length of nylon chord around one of its spongy wrists; the other end, I tied to a copper pipe.

I went for a walk. A long walk. I don’t know how long. I only know my feet were sore, blisters on my heels, and I was lost. I was stood in the middle of a stretch of waste ground near the sagging remnants of a block of flats. There was rubble everywhere, abandoned furniture and obsolete appliances. Crows fought with magpies over something seeping from a bulging black bin bag. Someone had set fire to a pile of shop dummies; the smoke that rose from their twisted, bubbling bodies was sewage-brown and reeked of treacle. A dog – matted, mongrel – was sleeping or dead on a bright orange rug. There are parts of Liverpool that can only be arrived at drunk or in a daze, or mad. I ran, and as I ran I seemed to collide with my memories; they shattered against me; slivers and shards in my mind.

Jagged, painful memories:

I’d consumed the news reports as voraciously and unthinkingly as had the next person. To me, as to the rest of the newspaper-reading and television-watching public, it had been a dark soap opera, compelling and entertaining. A serial killer who kept his victims’ eyes, fingernails and toenails as mementoes: it was as if a cheap Hollywood shocker had picked away at the patina of shifting light that coated the cinema screen until a hole had formed. Then, it had squeezed through.

And then Kate had disappeared. For nearly two weeks, I had searched and appealed and begged and slowly unravelled, but I’d known all along that whatever it was that had squeezed through that hole in the patina of shifting light had made its way to Liverpool and had taken my wife. Her body had been found near the M62, not far from the turn-off for Knotty Ash, unclothed, eyeless, fingernails and toenails torn from their beds. I had unravelled quickly and completely after that.

And here I was, unravelling again, holding the threads of my mind together with sweaty and unreliable hands. I made myself a cup of tea, then cooked beef stew for the thing in the attic. Again, as I climbed up the folding ladder into the roof space and set eyes upon the thing (of school age now), I was seized with the urge to kill it. I wasn’t sure what it was that was preventing me from tearing it to pieces, making it scream. After all, this was Joseph Aspis (my casually discarded revelation had drifted to the forefront of my mind and unfolded so slowly I hadn’t noticed, just accepted). This was the man who had murdered and mutilated eleven women. Including my wife. Instead of butchering it, I fed it. Occasionally, I would shove the food into its grasping mouth with unnecessary force, hoping it would begin to choke, but it didn’t. It just ate and ate, not so much swallowing the food as allowing it to fall down the inactive opening of its throat and into the pit of its stomach.

Then, for the first time, I spoke to it.

“Aspis? Joseph? Can you understand me? Do you know who I am?” A jellyfish sting spread viciously across my palm and I realised I’d slapped the thing, hard. It rocked back, head turning, but it didn’t fall from its suitcase perch. “Do you know who you are, you murdering little shit?” No response. Of course not: it was mindless.

I dropped the spoon on the attic floor. Beef stew spotted my slippers.

It was mindless. That was why I hadn’t killed it yet. It was mindless: it wouldn’t know what was happening to it. It wouldn’t suffer.

Joseph Aspis had never suffered. He’d never been caught, never been judged and imprisoned, never been scrutinised and tested, never been vilified and spat upon. He’d had a massive stroke whilst still at large. A neighbour in the same block of flats in Salford had called the police when he’d failed to show his bland and boyish face for the better part of a fortnight. Once they’d gained access to his flat, they’d found his collection of souvenirs. There had been eyeballs in jars of formaldehyde; fingernails and toenails pinned to a large board and framed, like a collection of rare, colourless butterflies; and, scattered about every available free surface, small conical ‘sculptures’ that had turned out to be plaster of Paris casts of his victims’ eye sockets.

Some days later the coroner had announced that Aspis had died quickly and suddenly, and the Daily Mirror had brandished the headline, “THE WILL OF GOD.” They’d spoken of “swift and decisive justice… the antithesis of the slow and grinding efforts of the British legal system.” They couldn’t have been further from the truth. Aspis had deserved a “slow and grinding” fate. He hadn’t died: he’d escaped, fleeing his body, weightless and untouchable. But now I had him. I’d brooded upon him so completely and for so long he’d manifested from the newspaper headlines I’d collected so obsessively in the months following Kate’s death. I would wait until he was fully grown and fully aware and I would tear off his fingernails and toenails and I would pluck out his eyes. God help me, I’d even make plaster of Paris casts from his empty eye sockets and decorate my fucking mantelpiece with them.

In the months that followed, I fed him, cleaned him and clothed him. I also read to him, tried to teach him his ABCs and basic mathematics, but to very little effect. He remained fundamentally mindless. He could scrawl shapes on paper with crayons and they might have been numbers or letters but it was impossible to be sure. Whatever they were, he seemed immeasurably proud of them, holding them up to me for approval, clapping and grinning when I said, “Well done.”

At some point – I don’t know how it happened, how it could possibly have happened – I started to take pity on him. I’d fought the feeling for a long time, fought it savagely, pushing it down into some cerebral sub-cellar but it had kept clambering up into the attic and making a din. Eventually, exhausted by the struggle, I had to concede defeat. This wasn’t the man who had killed eleven women, luring them to their deaths with his surely harmless, childlike face. This was the imbecilic golem I’d sculpted from bitterness, loss, melodramatic newspaper headlines and thin air. It looked like Aspis; there was no doubt about that. It had long ago shed the sticky, regurgitated-liquorice caul that had covered its body, metamorphosing into an unobjectionable young man. But it wasn’t Joseph Aspis. Joseph Aspis had died from a massive stroke a long time ago. The Hand of God had reached down and removed him from the Earth, like an expert surgeon excising a malignant tumour.

On August 2, three days before my birthday, I decided to kill it. Quick. Painless.

I left it in the attic. With its one free hand, it was scrawling on a notepad with blunted crayons. Its other hand was cuffed to a length of chain, which was itself cuffed to an old, heavy pipe. I’d bought the handcuffs from a sex shop in the city centre. They weren’t real, of course, but they were strong enough.

I strolled down to the local surgery and told Doctor Rackham I was having terrible trouble sleeping. He duly prescribed some sleeping tablets he confided “would send a bull elephant to the Land of Nod.” I popped into Boots and picked up my prescription, then jumped a bus into town. I went down to the kitchenware department of George Henry Lee and bought the biggest, sharpest carving knife I could find. There was a photograph of some celebrity chef on the packaging. He was smiling, holding the knife up so it caught the light, glinting like his teeth. On the bus home, I could feel the blade through the carrier bag sat on my lap. It felt like an icicle, numbing my thighs.

“Hi honey, I’m home,” I shouted as I came through the front door. This was a running joke of mine that had ceased to be funny long ago but had evolved into an irrepressible and strangely comforting habit.

I made lasagne. It was a favourite of Joseph’s. Or the thing I’d thought was Joseph Aspis. I crushed up the sleeping tablets – all of them – and sprinkled them throughout the lasagne.

I climbed up the unsteady folding ladder and into the attic.

The empty attic.

Joseph… the thing I had thought was Joseph Aspis, was gone.

I placed the lasagne on top of a large cardboard box; it contained Christmas decorations if I remembered rightly. I took off my oven gloves, then slid the knife from the back pocket of my jeans and removed its stiff, plastic sheath. The knife felt lightweight and silly, nothing more than a kitchen implement, about as threatening as the grinning celebrity chef who’d advertised it. Stooping, I walked slowly toward the stack of suitcases and the collection of newspaper clippings (now crushed and illegible). Next to the clippings: the handcuffs. They were bloody, thin tatters of flesh clinging to them. The chain (still handcuffed to the pipe) had been tossed aside and looked like a dead, grey snake strewn across the attic floor.

Suddenly, the room shifted, tipped left then right. The knife fell from my hand, clattering against the dead-snake chain, as I threw out my arms to keep my balance. I staggered back against the tower of suitcases, where, until recently, the Aspis thing had squatted like some primitive idol on its pedestal. The suitcases took my weight for a moment then toppled to the floor. An instant later, I followed. I found myself lying amongst what had once been my wife’s favourite clothes (a light, summery dress, ivory with faint silver flowers; the thick woollen jumper that had reappeared every November since 1988; the skirt I’d always said made her look like Miss Marple but she’d insisted on wearing anyway).

I sat up, a mustard-coloured cashmere scarf clutched in one hand. The attic hadn’t tipped at all. Of course it hadn’t. It was the light bulb, swinging back and forth. Shadows crashed in waves, first against one wall, then the next. On the far side of the attic, bleached by the glare of the bare bulb, a figure stood. It was casually posed, one hand in its pocket, the other tick-tocking my recently acquired knife in time with the swinging light bulb.

The bulb slowed and settled. It hung precisely in front of the figure’s face, creating the illusion of something angelic, a sphere of light in place of a head. I recognised my own clothes: the black suit I’d worn to Kate’s funeral; but instead of the respectful black tie I’d worn on that occasion, the lilac one Kate had bought for me in New York the last time we’d been on holiday. I had to look away, because of the suit and the tie and the searing yellow light that was tattooing acid-green spots on the backs of my eyes.

The figure came forward, knife still tick-tocking back and forth. It dipped its head as it passed under the bulb, then squatted down about a yard from where I lay. I looked up into the face of the thing I’d created in lieu of Joseph Aspis, the thing I’d created to torture, to make suffer. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I doubled my grip on the cashmere scarf, scrutinised the label. Hand Wash Only.

The knife blurred. The tip of the blade nicked my left shin. The pain was intense but brief, shock numbing the wound like ice.

“Stephen,” it said. “Look at me.” Its voice sounded exactly as I’d imagined Joseph Aspis’ to sound, almost accentless, persuasive in its colourless simplicity.

I did as it had told me. There was pity in its eyes.

“I’m not Joseph Aspis,” it said and shrugged. “Sorry.”

“I know,” I managed. “Of course you’re not. Joseph Aspis died of a stroke. Quick and painless.”

It nodded, apparently glad I’d understood this basic truth. It put a hand over its mouth, as if to keep its lips sealed until it knew what it wanted it say next, had found the right words. Kate had done that sometimes. A minute later, the hand fell away.

“I’m so much worse than Joseph Aspis,” it said. It shook its head, sagged a little as if under the weight of some invisible burden. “So much worse. God, the things I’m going to do, Stephen. The things I’m going to do.” Then, a whisper aimed seemingly at no one: “Not my fault. Not to blame.”

It rubbed a hand across its suddenly sweaty forehead and stood, slipping the knife into the inside pocket of its jacket. My jacket.

“Best be getting on,” it said with forced cheerfulness. “That which we are, we are.”

Tennyson, I thought. It’s quoting Tennyson. I had no idea which poem.

Tennyson had been another of Kate’s loves. She had read his work aloud to me when I’d been trying to watch television or listen to the radio. I hadn’t realised I’d taken any of it in.

It made its way down the attic to the ladder, stopping next to the box where I’d left the lasagne. It poked a finger into the still-warm dish, popped the finger into its mouth, sucked, then grinned.

Kate had detested lasagne, had claimed it tasted like “boiled Lego”. I only ever got to eat it in restaurants or when she was working late. Or now that she was dead.

I watched as it descended the ladder, heading out into the world, this travesty. This thing that wasn’t Joseph Aspis or Kate or me, but a sick combination of the three. This thing I had made, that I had inflicted upon the human race and the memory of my dead wife. I’d lain in bed night after night, staring up at the featureless bedroom ceiling thinking of nothing but Aspis, Kate, myself (of poor, poor, suffering me) and this horror was the result.

I’d poisoned everything, let my grief warp into something sour and dangerous, and I lacked the energy or the courage to do a thing about it.

After a while, I fell asleep, curled up in a nest of Kate’s favourite clothes.

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