Louise Burgess: Dead Man’s Nest

‘My Charlie loves a pink wafer.’ Eileen set out a wheel of bright biscuits on the plate. ‘Even now.’ She poured boiling water into the teapot and, after an uncomfortably long and noisy fight with the porcelain lid, she fitted it into position. ‘He’s been dead for twenty years.’

‘Is that right?’ Steven said, popping a whole wafer into his mouth and, since the tea was not yet brewed, immediately regretting it.

‘Oh yes. They disappear. I buy three packs on a Wednesday morning and I have two wafers with my afternoon tea. Thursdays, I take the rest of the packet to Elsie’s but by Friday, you can mark my words, the other two packs have been eaten.’

‘You reckon you’ve got a ghost then?’

‘A ghost? No, I don’t believe in all that. It’s him, isn’t it? It’s my Chaz’.

‘But he’s… dead?’

‘Oh yes dear, twenty years now. God rest his soul.’ She poured the tea into two mugs, a thin handled bone china one with a gold rim and a larger one decorated with exotic plants, each labelled with its botanical name.

‘His mug disappears too – the one we bought at um…whatsit called? That big garden centre in London.’

‘Kew?’ said Steven, reading from the mug.

‘Yes. One day it’s gone, the next day it’s back in the cupboard, upside down. That’s how I know it’s him. They’ve got a plant there that smells like rotting flesh – but only when it’s in bloom.’

Steven shook his head, marvelling at the battiness of this old cow. Then he ate another wafer, took a swig of tea and went back to his work. He was on his seventh coat of matt Alabaster in Eileen’s dining room. The walls were well covered now and even he didn’t think he could get away with insisting they needed another going over.

‘These skirting boards are looking a bit shabby now you’ve done the walls, Eileen. Do you want me to freshen them up? Shouldn’t be more than a few days’ work.’

‘Oh? Alright dear, if you think that’s what it needs. Charlie always took care of this kind of thing. He was very good at maintenance, you know. I wouldn’t want to disappoint him by letting things go. He’d hate that.’

Steven’s stomach churned and he regretted that last wafer. He could do with something decent to eat.

A little while later, as he was idly rolling another unnecessary layer of paint onto the wall, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eileen at the mirror in the hall, running a wire brush through her white, wispy hair so that it stood out around her face like a dandelion clock. He’d seen that brush on the side one day, all matted hair and particles of scalp, and he’d had to pour his cup of tea into the nearest pot plant.

Next, as was her routine, she shakily applied the red lipstick that Steven had often noticed bleeding through the wrinkles around her mouth. When she smiled, after the initial shock, he couldn’t help thinking how her bus red lips really made the mature cheddar hue of her teeth ‘pop’, as they said on daytime DIY makeover programs, creating a colour scheme that Ronald McDonald would have been proud of.

‘Are you off to see Elsie today, Eileen?’

‘Going to find out how her pre-op appointment went.’ Eileen’s fingers, misshapen with age, fumbled with the buttons on her tangerine coat.

‘Oh dear, she got to have an operation then?’

‘No, she’s having a boob job, dear.’

Steven’s paint roller came to a standstill. His open mouth asked the question without the need for words.

‘Eighty four,’ Eileen responded, hooking her handbag over her arm. ‘But she lied about her age on that computer internet thing where you can meet people for sex and friendship, and now she’s panicking.’

The paintroller made a wet, sucky noise on the wall.

‘Have you seen the dog anywhere?’ Eileen scanned the floors.

‘You haven’t got a dog, Eileen.’

‘Thank goodness for that. Right, I’m off. Just leave the key under the mat as usual when you go. And help yourself to biscuits.’

Steven watched through the net curtains as she shuffled down the path and out of the gate before he put his paint roller down in its tray and unplugged his phone.

‘What do you want?’

‘That’s nice, Sam. Just ringing to see how you are.’

‘It’s none of your business, Steve. We’re separated. It’s inappropriate to keep calling me.’

‘I still care about you. We can still be friends, can’t we? Friends that call each other up and ask each other how they are?’

‘No. We can’t be friends. Ever.’

‘Oh, come on babe, at least give me chance to explain myself.’ He took her silence as his cue to continue. ‘I was drunk, we both were – you know how it is when I’ve had a few beers. It didn’t mean anything, I just got carried away.’ He heard her sniff. ‘I swear to God I was thinking of you the whole time. She’s… she’s nothing to me. You, to me, are everything. I can’t live if… if living is without you. You are my one and only. Anyway, I just called… to say…’

Sam hung up.

Steven listened to the flatline tone for a long time. It struck him that it sounded as though a life support machine had been switched off – a fitting soundtrack to his current state of affairs. He spent a good two and a half minutes feeling sorry for himself before his stomach reminded him to find food.

After a cheese sandwich, two more cups of tea, half a packet of pink wafers and an episode of Escape to the Country, Steven decided to call it a day. Eileen would be back from Elsie’s soon, so he gathered a few supplies onto a tray – the rest of the biscuits, some crisps, three slices of ham and a mug of water. Then he opened the front door and slid the key under the mat, closed it again, picked up his tray and headed upstairs.

He’d been squatting in Eileen’s loft for two weeks now, ever since Sam had kicked him out. It wasn’t too bad, nice and warm, and it would do until he’d saved up enough money to sort himself out. No doubt Sam would be begging him to go back soon anyway. He just needed to stretch out the job at Eileen’s for as long as possible. He reckoned he could spend three days on the skirting boards and then convince her that the dado rails need doing. That would take up another week. If he absolutely had to, he could sabotage the plumbing to a point where the whole kitchen ceiling would need to be renewed. A last resort of course but he certainly hadn’t ruled it out. He’d do whatever he needed to.

He heard the faint cuckoo of Eileen’s hallway clock announce every hour, entertaining himself by opening bags of old clothes and trying a few things on. He was quite taken with a chunky mauve cardigan with oversized lapels. It was a homemade job. Eileen had probably knitted it for Charlie. It smelled of mothballs, but he kept it on whilst he went through a couple of old photo albums to pass the time.

‘Chaz’s first car’ was written in curly letters beneath a jaundiced photo of a young man in flares and a white vest, leaning against a sky-blue Ford Fiesta, arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. A smile crept out of the edges of his moustache and a breeze was blowing one side of his shoulder length brown hair across his neck.

‘New Year’s Eve 1982/3’ was a picture of three men and a woman in front of a brick fireplace, their arms around each other’s shoulders, heads thrown back and mouths open mid-song. The men were clasping cans of lager, the woman, laughing and looking at the man to her right. She seemed not at all perturbed by his ridiculous mullet and moustache.

There were shoe boxes of greetings cards, large plastic boxes of ring binders with labels: ‘Mortgage’, ‘Life Insurance’, ‘Bills’, ‘Accounts’. Steven couldn’t imagine why Eileen would want to keep all this debris. He didn’t have any possessions to show for his thirty-six years on this earth and he liked it that way. Nothing to burden him. He could go anywhere and do anything.

Decades of meaningless nonsense was stacked up to the rafters and the only floor space was a six foot by three foot patch of wooden floor which Steven was currently using as his bed. A navy towelling dressing gown, fished out of a suitcase, made a modest but perfectly good mattress, and three large empty Coke bottles constituted the en suite. Craps had to be done in the daytime. Luckily for Steven he had good control over his bodily functions. He charged his phone whilst he was working and used the phone’s torch to light his loft apartment. Sorted.

Steven was still awake when the cuckoo announced midnight. This was unusual because, as he would often boast to anyone who would listen, he could sleep anywhere. He’d slept in the car enough times. Not to mention floors, sofas, bathtubs, shower trays, wardrobes. He had fallen asleep in the dentist’s chair once, but that was after a heavy night that ended with him swallowing one of his own front teeth in a drunken brawl. The cuckoo ended its relentless assault and, a moment later, the four thin strips of orange light that glowed through the square edges of the loft hatch, vanished. The annoying old bint must have turned the landing light off. She’d never done that before. He was plunged into utter blackness. Not a chink of light came in from anywhere. For the first time since he’d been dossing at Eileen’s, Steven felt uneasy.

His hand groped around the tiny gap between his body and the boxes of detritus that surrounded him, but after a good five minutes or so he gave up looking for his ‘bastard phone’. He decided to get himself comfortable and try and sleep. Propping himself up on one forearm, he twisted round to reach for the squishy black sack behind his head that he sometimes used as a headboard-cum-pillow, and ripped it open from the base. He pulled out what felt like several sweaters, woollen scarves and other soft items of clothing and laid them down on top of the dressing gown, flattening each garment to add layers to his ‘mattress’. The end result was itchy and lumpy and smelled musty like the cardigan – as you’d expect after twenty years. But underneath that mustiness there was a deeper scent, almost spicy or peppery, with a twist of sweet musk. It was, he realised, the smell of a person in the weaves of the fabric. Human flesh with a hint of cologne, perhaps.

When he awoke, he was still in complete darkness. It was clearly nowhere near morning. His head was pounding and something sickly hung in the air, sweet and putrid. But it was not just a smell, it felt like particles – dust perhaps? He sat up and took some deep breaths, but with each inhalation he felt his lungs fill with the tiny flecks of matter that seemed to be suspended in the space around him. The candied scent was becoming more intense with every breath. He tried to keep his breathing shallow as his heart raced and his head throbbed. In the darkness he panicked, struggling to make sense of this horrible situation. He was choking now, his mouth dry and rasping and his airway constricted to a hair’s breadth by the intrusion of the fibrous granules. As he began to lose consciousness, he saw a billion crushed pink wafer biscuits exploding before his eyes.

Coming to, Steven became aware of a drilling noise. He sat up and, as his eyes were trying to make sense of the blackness, a bright light suddenly flashed from somewhere near his feet. His phone! He leaned forward and picked it up. He had a text message from Eileen’s number, which was very odd because he had been sure that she had no idea what such a thing was. Good morning, it said.

He checked the time: 6.45am. Why would she text him to say good morning? And why was it still so fucking dark? This was all a bit of a ball-ache now and he’d had a rough night. The drilling started again. It was coming from directly beneath the loft hatch. Steven shot forward from his prickly nest and tried to open the hatch, but it was completely stuck. He swiped for the torch on his phone. There must be something amongst all this crap that I can use to bash my way out of here, he thought to himself. But as the phone illuminated his surroundings, it became very clear that he wasn’t alone. A man, tall and broad in a mauve cardigan with big lapels, stooped between the rafters, smiling, no – chuckling though his bushy brown moustache. Then Steven’s phone battery died and he was once again plunged into total darkness.

Twitter: @LouiseJBurgess