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Umbrella down the cellar
There I saw a naked fella…
1903 – unknown
Belated or not, it is right and proper that I am here at the police station, ready to tell. The doors hiss a note of approval and deliver me from the January drizzle into a warm foyer with underlying smells of sweat and beer. The decor is cream and navy; still trying to be smart under scuffs and smells of disorder.
At the front desk, beneath the gold insignia, a woman with hair as stiff and upright as a police helmet, strains to hear me through her glass screen. I tell her my name is Grace Reid. We peer at each other with the grimace of partially heard words. She waves her hand and I think she says an officer will see me shortly.
I tighten the belt of my durable (if dated) camel coat and sit down on one of the screwed down metal chairs. The tighter the belt, the safer, I think, although disconcertingly I feel my buttocks spill loose either side of the tubular frame. From somewhere I hear my mother tell me to straighten up; not to slouch. I always hear my mother. I do as I am told: fold my hands in my lap, eyes forward, chin down, shoulders back.
I have been taught the value of steadiness and compliance all my life. Broad in the beam with a low centre of gravity, I am never rocked or swayed by the squalls of life. I wear sensible shoes, easy-iron slacks and breathable cotton underwear – the type you can bleach if necessary. My mother of course made sure that I knew my rights and wrongs absolutely.
It is right and proper that I am here, ready to tell.
I was well-scrubbed as a child with rough, chapped cheeks either side of a down-turned mouth. I was bossy and disapproving; warmed by serviceable home knits as I trampled over other’s’ feelings in well-fitting Clarks. All blemishes, physical and moral were rubbed to extinction by either the wetted corner of my mother’s handkerchief or the whip of her tongue. She would say, ‘Grace – keep your thoughts decent and your nose to the grindstone.’ The slack-jawed look of incomprehension would only encourage her. ‘Keep an eye to the afterlife and an ear to the wall and you won’t get any nasty surprises.’ And so this is how my senses were honed and at the same time deadened: filtering, sifting and all the time looking for a tripwire.
With life being such a sustained effort and such hard work, I have always pictured my mother as an onward and uncompromising Christian Soldier, but last year, after a short illness, she stopped marching and died.
I tried really hard to look after her when she was ill but I couldn’t make her better. She was never very good at showing her feelings for me but I knew it was her illness speaking when nothing would please her and she barked out sharp incoherent orders from a listing mouth – although it was hurtful all the same. I comforted myself that her stroke had not only blocked the neural pathways for her right side, it had also closed up the part of her where she kept her love.
I now feel my hands shaking a little in my lap.
In spite of my ballast and good sense I have felt unanchored since her death. I am left with all the effects and essentials of a steady and equable life but these things are both substance and shadow. The furniture around me is an abiding testimony to its maker and to my mother, but it is as hollow as it is solid. When I move through the house, it creaks like the oak timbers of a loosened and abandoned ship. My mother’s timeless soft furnishings are dull shades of brown and beige – now more shit-like than autumnal.
I startle. ‘Miss Reid, would you like to come this way … or should I say a penny for them?’ Officer 7641 Gibson appears and introduces herself from the interview room doorway and calls me through. I am surprised when I stand up and look straight into her eyes. Only my height? Rather short for a police officer, I think – and in her mid-twenties at a guess. I had hoped for someone with a bit more gravitas. I didn’t want to have to worry about a person’s sensibilities but I suppose it really can’t be helped.
My cheeks colour. ‘I was miles away,’ I say as we sit down in the interview room either side of a screwed-down table. Officer Gibson looks at me. She has pale grey eyes; looks a little tired. Her blonde hair is pulled tightly back in a ponytail showing her dark roots. She gives me a benign look and I sense she is quite clear that I will have nothing of interest to say to her: maybe complaints about neighbourhood youths, vandalism, name-calling. Her pocket book and pencil are at the ready but not poised.
I begin. It was the first of November I tell her. A stuffed man – a Guy Fawkes – had been sacrificed rather sooner than necessary in the interests of a good laugh. I guess that until he reached my house, he had been heaved around or skateboarded from street corner to street corner and from door to door giving youngsters some half legitimate reason to demand money. A limp body in the chosen doorway providing a desired hint of menace. I anticipate her. Yes, perhaps I shouldn’t have answered the door that night. Maybe not; though I reasoned at the time that I could top up the ransom and be left alone. I had already bought my way through Trick or Treat with numerous bags of mini Snickers. I know it never works just to turn the lights off and pretend to be out. They know I’m never out. That night I answered the loud, persistent knocking on the door.
I tell Officer Gibson exactly what happened.
The knocking got louder and louder and didn’t stop. I opened the door very slowly and carefully and peered out from the bright hallway. At first there was just blackness. The street lights were not working that night. In fact they had been out all week, a matter of some concern to the older people of Larks Hill at a time when witches and goblins were out for what they could get. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a Guy, sitting as upright as he could manage on a plant pot on my path. His clumsy gloved fingers were pulled around a bulge of pink stuffing that had been pulled to stand upright through his trouser zip. The disembodied laughter from behind the privet was short-lived as I quickly, and I have to say inexplicably, pulled him into the hallway and shut and bolted the door. I turned the light off and no more than a little flushed, stepped over the Guy and went to prepare tea and shortcake in the kitchen. It was all over so quickly. I heard a couple of eggs hit my windows but I turned up the radio and my evening was otherwise uneventful. Clearly it was too dark or too late for much troublemaking and the shabby Guy was probably not worth a fight. I enjoyed my cup of tea and went to bed leaving my prostrate visitor where he fell.
Officer Gibson jots down a brief note about possible criminal damage but I can tell she thinks I have been provocative. She says maybe she will get someone out to take a look.
My sleep was fitful that night, I tell her. In dream after dream a man appeared. He stood in fields, arms outstretched, and then beckoned me. Sometimes he walked, almost silently and invisibly behind me in empty streets. In another dream he stepped out of a conflagration bearing the tiny limp frame of a child. But when I saw him netted and hauled in by a fisherman, fish-eaten and with opal eyes, I suddenly woke up, gasping, feeling that I too had been dragged to the ocean’s surface. I waited, awake in the darkness, waiting for reason to assert itself and for the internal noises of fear to shush and for my heart and lungs to tally and – as always – I settled down.
It is said that on All Soul’s Day the dead revisit their homes. I can understand that, I tell Officer Gibson, but in my mother’s case, she never actually left. I hear her voice and her face is forever there in my reflections. Of course I have some private recesses I can call my own but for the most part she abides with me, guides me and gives me the continued benefit of her persistent and unequivocal wisdom.
I continue my story.
He looked rather sick beside me at breakfast and couldn’t be tempted with anything to eat. He didn’t seem to have the strength to sit up. ‘I’m afraid it’s going to be back to basics,’ I told him. ‘And it’s no good looking like that either – like a wet fortnight or someone who’s lost a shilling and found a sixpence.’ I plied him with all the comforting commonplaces I could bring to mind about ends and means and cruelty and kindness and I made him up a bed on the chaise longue. I pulled him carefully into the lounge. I hoisted him into the bed and tucked him up. I insisted that he rest, he should trust me and let me take charge and nurse him back to health. I told him sternly: ‘It might be a long job too and we can’t be spoiling things for a hap’orth o’ tar.’ There was no resistance in him and I sensed he was grateful. I glanced back at him from the doorway and I felt touched by his vulnerability. He looked almost unreal, with his head barely indenting the plump feather pillow in its starched cotton slip.
I felt quite elated as I left the room and had a quivering in my belly. I had no need of outside help. I had a well-stocked home with materials and hardware for every contingency. I would gather together everything I might need into one place. The dining room would be ideal. The small occasional table – which never did match the Beautility suite – would be ideal for the tools and could be set out as the surgeon’s instrument tray next to the long table.
I found glue of all types, string, foil, scissors, wire, dishcloths, towels, gloves, brushes and dusters. Under the sink I found mother’s well-stocked toolbox with a hacksaw, hammer, pliers, nails, tacks and hinges. From my mother’s room the sewing box and first-aid kit were particularly fruitful: bandages, plaster strips, needles and pins of all sizes and extra-tough button thread. I pushed pillows, cushions, a duvet and tights under the table, which, partly extended, measured seventy-two inches; a perfect template for a six-foot frame.
I sensibly put on the table felt and began to work on a skeleton. It was important to get the proportions right for a nice tall man. I measured my own nape to coccyx and added four inches. I would also need to make up some height on good, long, strong legs.
From the handles of three brooms, a hoe and a garden rake, I made the legs, spine and cross braces of pelvis and clavicle. I sawed, sanded and bound them with garden twine drizzled and stiffened with craft glue: the tendon and glue-gristle.
The stiff and awkward legs rather annoyed me so I pulled the bones down the table and sawed them off at knee height. I reattached the shins using two small hinges and left them dangling over the drop-leaf.
I decided to finish off the legs before spending some time with my guest. I figured he would be pleased and surprised when I told him I had made such good progress. We would have a good chat over a light supper and maybe a glass of Guinness.
I worked with great dexterity. Around the leg spindles I wrapped long strips of material, cut from flannelette sheets. I made the muscle shapes with cushion wadding and cotton wool and once the shapes looked right and pleasing – particularly the finely sculpted gastrocnemius; I swaddled them and pinched them in with a final layer of flannelette, masking tape and Elastoplast. His bottom was a round, plump velvet scatter cushion, puckered to a central button, lashed onto the cross frame and blanket-stitched to the flannelette. His feet were hiking socks filled with dried haricots – though a little shapeless at the moment – dangling and trying to reach the floor. As he was to be a good deal taller than me, the unifying pair of tights had to have their feet cut out and the ends stitched to the long socks.
I stood back and admired my half-man. He looked sturdy, solid and a very pleasing shape and I was proud.
My friend had now slept for about seven hours, all through my feverish hard work. I now tiptoed to the lounge door, softly opened it and peeped in. All was quiet. The light was rapidly fading outside and the room was full of dark shadows. With my voice a little more than a whisper I called: ‘Are you awake?’ There was no reply. I called a little louder: ‘I’m going to light us a fire and we can have some supper.’
Still nothing, but I went in and knelt down on the cold, mottled hearth tiles and began to build my fire. First a layer of three newspaper twists from single sheets tightly rolled, twisted and knotted, then a single firelighter and a wigwam of twigs dotted with the tiniest of coals. Doing is what I do best I thought, with my mother adding as a chorus: ‘Our Grace is not a thinker.’
The task was hypnotic and as the fire began to catch and make the shadows come to life and dance in the room, I heard a voice softly say: ‘Thank you. You are really kind.’ I carried on building up the fire, all the time feeling the warmth on my front, conscious that bending over like that, my skirt had tucked into the cleft of my vast backside.
I disguised the rush of tenderness I felt. I played the Matron and I told him I was happy to look after him and I helped him sit up in bed. He was still wobbly but better for a good sleep. He told me his name was Johnny. I told him my name was Grace, which he thought was pretty but I heard my mother almost chanting: ‘Never graceful, never grateful, always hateful.’ I ignored it and smiled at Johnny. He tried to smile back but a little stiffness was to be expected.
I had popped a couple of Cornish pasties in the oven before I started with the fire and I could now smell warm pastry. It had been a while since I had poured two glasses of Guinness and filled two plates with food and I was thrilled. We ate pie and with his tongue loosened by the black stuff, Johnny told me he had been a soldier in his younger days: ‘I was a fighting man, Gracie. I carried the Ensign, the regimental flag. I carried the symbol – the reason.’
I pictured Johnny as the leader of men, upright as a jack staff himself and I told him about his new limbs. I said that with an early start tomorrow he could be finished and good as new by mid-afternoon and we could have an evening meal together to celebrate. I felt my cheeks burn at the thought, though I told Johnny it was the Guinness and the glow of the fire.
I cleared away the supper dishes but I told him I had one more job for today. ‘I need to sponge and press your trousers. They’re a decent pair, pinstripe, and I guess a good length on the new legs. A bit of attention and they’ll be good as new.’ There was a bit of an awkward moment when I realised I would have to get them myself but I approached it professionally and avoided eye contact. I rolled up the covers from the bottom and quickly undid the trousers and pulled them off. His pink candlewick was still protruding but before long his bottom half was just a lump of bedspread, unformed and threadbare. ‘Goodnight Johnny, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
The next day was plain sailing. Johnny’s torso was easily attached to the fine legs. His nylon turtleneck stretched well over his new frame. His old raggy interior was replaced with two pillows bound to spine and clavicle either side, with a bit of extra down pulled up from the waist area to broaden his shoulders. This was against the force of gravity so one or two supporting stitches were required. His arms were the tightly filled sleeves with bicep shapes sculpted with Micropore; his hands rice-filled marigolds. He was packed, pinched in, unified and bound with blanket stitch. I felt a flash of annoyance that he drooped like an orang-utan but I let it go.
His head was a tightly stuffed sphere made from two joined woollen hats, stitched on to the turtle. I put back his mask face and gave it a coat of mother’s emulsion paint, the colour of biscuit. I wished I’d had something a little darker and more swarthy.
There was a growing confidence and potency about Johnny that day. He said he needed a shirt and tie so that we could dine together later and get to know each other properly – share some wine. Rice and rubber slid off the table and brushed down my leg as I walked by.
I had never bought clothes for a man but I promised him I would do my best. I knew I wanted him to have a stiff, smart white shirt, maybe a red tie and shiny shoes. Socks and underwear would have to be discreet and understated. I left the house with a shopping list of men’s attire but also of T-bone steaks, cheeses, wine and fresh fruit.
I sensed Johnny had prepared himself while I was out. He was groomed and sweet smelling, lounging on the daybed waiting to be helped into his clothes. I put his socks on first to test his modesty. He was fine, comfortable in his skin and almost cocky. The underpants were next – classic Y-fronts. I was disappointed they were a bit slack at the thighs. The shirt was crisp, a good fit and looked very smart indeed with the dark red tie and the pressed pinstripe trousers. I bought sturdy black lace-ups in a charity shop, a dead man’s shoes, and polished them to look as shiny as coal. I even remembered a belt – but before securing it and sitting him up at the table I turned his head away and slipped a large straight banana and two seedless satsumas into his underwear.
I then readied myself: exfoliated, shaved and moisturised until I was pink and sticky and trimmed. I chose a black, sateen, straight skirt, tight around my solid girth and a billowy, cream chiffon blouse, barely containing my spilling breasts. I found both items at the charity shop when I bought Johnny’s shoes. I shut out my mother’s voice at the counter, sharp and spitting out ‘hussy’.
I’m not sure of the way to a man’s heart but my food was good. The T-bones were juicy with a little soft pinkness and the vegetables were firm. Johnny hadn’t minded waiting and he poured the wine. The alcohol made me warm and relaxed and I twirled in chiffon for his pleasure; a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. He was so attentive, so encouraging and he said I could spill out all the things that hurt.
I don’t remember giving him a handkerchief but he wiped my tears and lifted me up into his arms. We began to move and sway to music he had already chosen. He pressed and squeezed against me and I could feel his breath quickening. I held him close and with one hand helped him with my brassiere as he fumbled to undo it, clumsy in his passion. Unfastened, no buttons could hold back the release and my breasts spilled out against his chest like airbags on impact. I could feel against my supporting thigh that he was so, so hard. I searched out his lips with my tongue; the emulsion rough like stubble. I was trembling and still my scalding tears fell.
Johnny pulled away and looked at me. His eyes suddenly filled with disgust as he saw the tears and snot, the blue veins and pink beseeching nipples over a shiny black barrel. He was judging me – ‘Gracie, Gracie, fat and crazy.’ I could hear the words somewhere in the room. I reached for his hands and forced him to hold me but there was just the heavy contemptuous thud of rice between my shoulder blades. I held him to me but his hardness, his passion for me, had gone. I reached out for the bloodied teak-handled steak knife and with all my strength pushed it and twisted it through his smart white shirt.
As the police investigation drew to its close I heard someone tell Officer Gibson that once the flies had cleared, all that was found was an overdressed Guy, a few bones (bovine) and what looked like a pile of rotten fruit.