November Short Story Winner

Gary Morton, Glasgow, Scotland

Part 1: Good Morning and Welcome.

Take a deep breath and try to concentrate.   

I have constantly fought to control black thoughts and brutal volitions by pushing the burning resentment into a tight little carcinogenic ball in the pit of my stomach.  Here it festers and merrily digests my hopes, my self-respect, my confidence, my self-esteem and my intestines. I have struggled, in vain, to sustain a “socially acceptable” (whatever the fuck that means) façade in order to function within this judgmental, narrow-minded and bigoted city. I have tried to shop in the right shops and buy the right clothes and wear the right shoes with the right labels on them. I am constantly trying to define my personality with things. I have bought every pioneering electronic gadget with a glowing smile. They taunt me with whispered promises to enrich my existence. Sadly, I cannot learn social skills by pressing black plastic buttons on silver plastic machines. I demand instant gratification of my desires. I demand constant entertainment and distraction. I am the new and improved, innovative and modern ambassador of progress, predictive text and Google. I am the leader of a new generation of losers and failures. I am selfish, arrogant, guarded, atomised, alienated, isolated, individualised and at any time I can withdraw into the inviting warmth of an isolated, electronically-induced womb with buzzing earphones. Remember. Conversation is a dying art and you have learned nothing from television, except how to ignore each other. Boys and Girls your homework task this week is to engage in some peaceful, non-threatening, non-violent civil disobedience and social protest.

Engage the stranger next to you in conversation and watch them squirm. The worst thing that could happen is people think you are a freak or a social outcast and they probably think that anyway. After all, restraining orders just keep life interesting. Without these skills you will always be perfectly alone and you will die with only your aching, twisted spine for company. Perfection means nothing and it never will. It is vapid and deceptive; do not let it mislead you or let it influence you in any way. Perfection is unachievable so we should celebrate our lack of identity and be the champions of our very own frustrated mediocrity. I have had the failed relationships and the broken hearts and the regrets and the lies. I have suffered the indiscretions and the guilt and the bitterness and the disappointment and the hushed telephone conversations and the pathetic excuses. I have drunk an entire bottle of vodka and then gouged the name of a lover into my arm with the broken shards of glass. But we have all been there haven’t we? Ultimately, all these pointless pursuits have failed to fill the rusting void in the pit of my stomach. It grows by the day and feasts on my failures and all that is left is hostility and disgust. I am powerlessly empowered. I am worthless and stagnant. I am late night cafes and cigarette butts in a dirty puddle. I am vomit on a pavement and ragged knife cuts in the back of a rubber public transport seat. I am poisoned wings and butterflies. I am well-measured resentment and sniper rifle majesty. I am bruised egos and broken fingers. I am X-rays and doorframes. I am wired jaws and bitter cowardice. I am rusted chains and flame-retardant furniture. I am saline drips and asphyxiation. As you may have guessed this isn’t really a story, because I don’t believe in stories. This is a confession and exoneration; of sorts. But it is also an accusation and an emphatic battle cry. So don’t forget that. It’s important. I cannot comprehend the sequence of events which have brought me to this point. But I will do my best to explain them to you in some form of logical and cohesive manner, whilst attempting to unravel the tangled strands of my conflicting memories and turbulent mind. Never forget that we are stuck in this torturous assembly line. The conveyor belt is broken and bleeding. And there is no off-switch. So here is your portrait. It is all for you.

Well done. You can relax now.

Part 2: Happy, Happy Families.

My neighbour killed himself today. People are always stealing my fucking thunder.

I didn’t even know him very well, so I can’t say I care that much about the news. The only interaction we ever shared was an occasional awkward nod in the corridor. All I can recall about him is the rough, cratered texture of his skin and his comical broken-veined nose. I used to hear him and his wife arguing all the time. I would hear things being thrown across the room and smashing into the thin, busily wallpapered walls. I would turn down the volume on the TV and listen to them. I would listen to their baby crying, ignored, in a cramped room with a sad little pink mobile, slowly rotating over her glistening eyes, full of hope and innocence. Sometimes the scenes on the screen and the events occurring above me coincide, this always makes me smile. I can’t make out every word, but I can generally discern and differentiate their voices because of their tone.

His was low, like a stupid animal grunting, pleading and snivelling. He was always trying to placate her and calm her down before the faux porcelain ornaments get involved. Seemingly, her French-manicured talons could do a lot of damage. He would always have to explain away his bruises, scratches and cuts the next day at work. He used to say that he did a lot of gardening. They don’t even have a fucking garden; they couldn’t take care of it.

Her voice was lighter, much more high-pitched and piercing. She would shriek and cry and swear. For some reason I could always make out the swear words. They are easily recognisable in any language.

From what I can gather, he has come home late and she has constructed a scenario inside her emotionally unstable mind that involved an extra-marital affair with his secretary. How very lazy and unoriginal.

The violence was always directed against him and he would just take it and take it. He would never react; no matter how much of his blood had been drawn and how many horrendous names she had called him. He had given up and she had won every conceivable argument a long time ago. He even managed to restrain himself when she screeched at him that she had fucked his younger brother at his uncle’s 70th birthday party and he was twice the man he would ever be. And also twice the length.

This is a particularly bad night and the argument ends like it always does; with her at the top of the stairs in a silk kimono, giving off the scent of gin, with her mascara running, wearing too much fake tan and screaming down at him as he scuttles away to the local to drink away his pain and to reminisce and grieve about the beautiful, warm-hearted woman he had married and then somehow lost.

I guess tonight she finally pushed him too far. All silent, psychologically stunted human automatons have their breaking point. As usual the voices grow louder and angrier, reaching a tumultuous crescendo that causes Ethel- the old lady on the top floor- to stamp her decrepit, slippered feet on the floor in an attempt to curtail the inevitable familial detonation.

Change the channel.

To be fair, Ethel was a sweet old dear. She has either led a very interesting life; or she is irretrievably senile. Allegedly, she had been in China during the Communist Revolution and witnessed when the fighting started. Her husband was a Professor of Theology in a Chinese University. At the time of the Revolution the troops had begun to attack the academic compound where they worked and she and her husband had to be evacuated onto a British Frigate that was moored in the bay. All they had left was each other and two small suitcases containing their meagre belongings. They had to leave the rest behind. He was devastated and inconsolable because in the confusion he had absentmindedly left their wedding picture sitting on their bedside table.

I don’t really get any details because she is permanently on oxygen and it is difficult to hear what she says through her plastic mask. I go round sometimes to sit with her and read to her. She likes Oscar Wilde, but she doesn’t like the books I read, she says they are too violent and depressing. Occasionally she has a funny wee turn which makes her disorientated; she withdraws into herself and stops speaking for hours.

I came round one day with some things I had picked up from the shops and she was standing in the hall completely naked and saying over and over again ‘I’m just going out to see Mummy, she promised to come and get me, Mummy said that I can leave now’. I was completely mortified and I quickly wrapped a towel round her ancient, emaciated body. I helped her into bed, before slipping her life-giving mask over her exhausted and tear-streaked face. I gently kissed her on the forehead and she fell asleep. It was one of the most disturbing and upsetting things I have ever had the misfortune to see.

Ethel has called the police on numerous occasions, but invariably by the time they had arrived the arguments had subsided and there was little evidence to show there had been any disturbance. I don’t know how many pointless, repetitive statements I have had to give. He would usually lock himself in the toilet, attempting to disguise his wounds and trying to hide his secret shame. He would insist on only giving stilted answers to their questions through the door. The police soon lose patience with the lack of progress in proceedings; finish their mugs of tea and leave.

The channel flicks back.

By this time I have usually returned to some inane TV show and I’m not really paying much attention. But now things are just getting interesting. Tonight was a particularly intense and vehement argument and he has finally lost it. He has finally lost his self control and his temper has burst through the seams of his unfathomable and seemingly impenetrable love for her.

The days and weeks of abuse have finally been too much and he must have hit her back. Or at least that was all I could ascertain as I gleefully listen to the localised human drama unfolding. I heard him let out an inhuman wail of anguish and then there was an unmistakable dull thud on the floor above my head. He had finally done it, and now he had to live with the consequences.

They found him at his mother’s bungalow. He was sitting in his old bedroom, surrounded by his old melted toys. He had poured a bottle of whiskey over himself and set it alight. When the police interviewed his mother, she told them through a raw, constricted throat that she didn’t hear any strange noises or cries of agony, just that she heard a door slam, the sound of her grown son weeping and then silence.

By the time the flames had reached the yellow, duck-patterned curtains she could smell the acrid smoke seeping through the floorboards. She ran out of the house and called the fire brigade and an ambulance; but they took half an hour to arrive. The sirens were screaming violently at each other and blue lights were flashing on the faces of neighbours who stood and shivered in their pyjamas and overcoats. He hadn’t left a note; or an explanation. Once the hungry flames had been sated and put out, all they found was his wedding ring; tightly clutched into the burned flesh of his barely recognisable, blackened hand.