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Going Out of my Head

It’s a weird kind of silence in the eye of the storm. Billy is torn. Alex is the only person he trusts, the only person who seems to know what is going on and Billy needs that reassurance. There is something else, though, something heavy and deep, that prevents his feet from moving back up the lane, something dark and compelling drawing him down towards the farm courtyard.

As far as he could tell, the occupants of the Lexus were strangers to him, which means that Jock has to be on the premises somewhere. He has an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, as though lidless eyes are staring at him as he straightens up and turns to face the barns.

The old farm house looks cold and uninviting, brooding over the loss of past generations of pig breeders. The place is a mess of broken fence rails and overgrown hedgerows. Gates hang loose, buried in bramble runners and the first spurt of cow parsley. He shivers slightly. The emptiness of it all drills down into Billy's marrow. He puts the feeling down to the river of bile that he has deposited in the gutter.

A vacuum. Abhorrent. Nature has a way of dealing with emptiness and Billy has no real choice in the matter. He is drawn downwards, taking slow steps, descending the slight incline of the lane, past the farm house door and on towards the courtyard. The travellers’ abandoned trousseau on the threshold adds to the absurd sense of loss that is hollowing-out a space inside Billy’s head.

The song has to come. Billy believes in the song and the melody. He has faith. When all else fails he always has the sure procession of notes to lead him into the light like a line of biscuit crumbs in a smugglers cave. Billy has always relied, even in the darkest times, on his own personal gospel as performed by Saint Victor Damone, except that Mother Nature is playing games this morning. She has filled the hollow space in his head with the static interference of little voices.

At the far end of the farm house a low wall sticks out from the front of an old coach house. Billy has to swing out into the lane, away from the comfort of the fence at the front of the farm house garden. Exposure. He walks hesitantly forward, the irregular rhythm of his footsteps a direct consequence of the mute in his head. He notices the earth packed into the right angle between the low brick wall and the concrete strip of the lane. The dry weather is already turning it to dust. Footsteps echo in his head where the music should be, kicking up clouds of fine powder to obscure his view of the wider world. Tunnel vision.

As Billy approaches the corner of the coach house and the courtyard starts to come into full view he sees feet. He pauses for a second. The voices tell him to turn round, tell him that if he wants it badly enough he will wake up in bed and hear Bex making coffee in the kitchen, but Billy is running on Josey Wales time. He has to go on. For some absurd reason it's what a man has to do.

He walks a little further and sees legs. A prostrate body in a dark overcoat. The angles become more obtuse. Lines of sight and changing perspectives. There is a second body slumped by the wall of a barn. Billy feels as though he should be doing something other than walking slowly up to the body in the middle of the courtyard but he can't quite get a handle on what it is. He tries to hum the song that he has been singing to Bex these last couple of days but he can't remember how it goes.

The small voice deep inside his head tells him that he should be running, that he should be putting distance between his own aching body and the wreckage in the courtyard, that he should be calling the cops, anything but walking towards Jock Cascarino. Billy knows instinctively that Ken is dead, just like he knows without a shred of doubt that Jock is still alive.

His inner conscience is getting agitated, yelling at Billy that he should take his hand off the butt of the pistol in his pocket, but Billy shuts the last open window to his soul. Double-glazed, it cuts the voice off completely. If Billy is going to walk in melodic silence he doesn't want the moment ruined by a rational prick in a cheap suit shouting at him from an upstairs window.

Billy feels strangely light headed, as if the world is fine and all is right in Heaven. The storm front is lifting. Ken has broken his last head. The odd arrangement of his limbs is an apt epitaph for a man who has dedicated his life to breaking other peoples’ arms and legs. The man must be double-jointed at the knees. Glass eyes. No sweat. Billy can deal with Jock. He has the grazes on his knuckles to prove it.

He wonders why his blood isn't boiling, but then he remembers; this is for Bex, Bex is the reason and this sick bastard is the cause. Josey Wales had a cold heart when it came to dealing with scum. Without the words to explain it to himself, or to Bex, who seems to have joined him in the courtyard, Billy starts to understand why he is here. He imagines that Bex is six years old, and that she is holding his free hand. In the real moment, in the breaking of the spells that bind us to the wheel, when the world spins slowly and feet move inexorably towards the end of days, you see everything clearly. The silence breaks. Infant Bex smiles at him and birds sing. It’s almost a cartoon moment and Billy finds a new song. Infant Bex tells him to do it.

Davie McCoist sees everything clearly, too. The car is gone, his brother is a pale shadow of his former self and something that looks like the Boss is lying face down in the dirt. Standing over Jock Cascarino is a middle aged crooner pointing a gun at his head. Davie is unarmed. He stands in the shadows at the back of the barn where the Transit is ticking over and waits for the shot. He heard two, maybe three backfires. Ken and Jock. Billy Whitlow has clearly shot his brother and his employer.

"Fuck me", he whispers, and holds his breath.

Jock must need a final bullet. The seconds pass and Billy just stands there. Davie can hear the Transit idling. Sparrows chatter on the barn roof. He has to think about this. He should be running across the courtyard, grappling with the crazy bastard and saving what is left of this sorry life, but that’s the point, he realises; this sorry life. He is sick of it. He wants to go home.

Davie wills Billy to finish the job. "Jesus, man, just do the cunt".

Billy stands and points the gun at Jock’s head. Surreal television. Suspended animation. It feels as though someone has pressed the pause button on the remote. Davie breathes out and feels a sense of relief wash through him. It’s the only form of emotion that he seems to feel these days. Seeing his brother on the floor, unmoving, impossibly silent under the circumstances, is like having the keys to the cell door thrust into his hands. The madness of it suddenly strikes Davie as funny and he fights to hold back the laughter. Billy bloody Whitlow, he thinks, fuck me!

Second thoughts. Gun fire. Rural England. Men in suits. The Old Bill are bound to be making house calls. Davie's next impulse is to slide back, to slip away unseen and walk across the fields. He wants to fill his lungs with solid country air. He doesn't care if he has to walk all the way back to Ibrox, just so long as he gets there, but he can’t fight the macabre fascination of the scene in the courtyard, he can’t just walk away. He has to see, he has to be there when the final act goes down. Laughter and tears. He has to be there because Billy has a daughter and because he, Davie McCoist, has a lost childhood. He blinks back a tear. He always liked Bex.

Davie has no choice, just like the bounty hunter in the film. Billy shoots or he lets him go. Davie needs the choice to be made for him. Davie needs Billy to set him free one way or another. There’s something about the old man with the gun that impresses Davie. He walks out of the shadows and starts to cross the courtyard to where Jock is lying in the dirt. He holds his hands up in front of his chest. He doesn't want any shooting, at least until he can look Billy clearly in the eye. As he approaches the death scene he realises that Billy is singing to Jock, singing softly, a lullaby, a simple little song of farewells.

He sees Billy look up. The gun never moves from Jock's head. Billy sings quietly and it’s only as Davie gets close that he can make out the words. For someone of Billy's talents the lyric is all over the place. The man's voice is cracked and the notes waver and spiral. The words make no sense, not in this context, but then Davie considers the situation. Killing is a funny business. The song goes round and round:

Cincinnati dancing pig (5)

He's the barnyard mister big

Cincinnati dancing pig

with his riggedy, jiggedy, jiggedy, jiggedy jig-a-jig-jig!

Children yell and clap and sing

When he does his buck and wing,

Cincinnati dancing pig

with his riggedy, jiggedy, jiggedy, jiggedy jig-a-jig-jig!

Dancing bears and kangaroos

have a lot on the ball,

but until you dig that remarkable pig

You ain't seen nothin' at all!

From Duluth to Birmingham

He's the pork chop Dapper Dan,

He's the keenest ham what am,

Cincinnati dancing pig

with his riggedy jiggedy jig-jig-jig!

Impaled on the horns of a dilemma, two men stand over the conscious but unmoving body of the recently retired Jock Cascarino. If Billy Whitlow and Davie McCoist decided to reach out they could touch each other's fingertips, but the small space between the two men is as wide as the Grand Canyon is deep. The song dies and the chatter of sparrows in the hedgerows spirals outwards. Somewhere in the bright blue sky a buzzard calls, searching for carrion, unaware of the rich pickings that lay prostrate on the courtyard floor at Sillick Farm. Fresh, warm meat.

Davie checks Billy out at close range. The only word that he can come up with to describe Jock’s assailant is, ‘frayed’. Billy looks like a ripped-up carpet, soiled, trodden into oblivion, the threads of a life hanging together more out of habit rather than any tightly bound weave.

Billy's voice is dusty. "Hello, Davie".

Davie looks at the gun, which is still pointing at Jock's head. Billy's hand is shaking slightly, but his grip looks firm. Davie keeps his voice low and soft, without threat.

"Billy?"

Billy casts a quick glance towards the other man. He can see shoes and the bottoms of jeans. There is a line of mud around the sole of Davie's left shoe. Birdsong. The sound of a chainsaw across the fields. Bright emerald bodies drift towards the barn wall. Flies on the make.

Davie is aware of time, aware of the slow dripping down of fragile existence, aware of the need to make himself scarce, but he is fascinated by this montage, by this still life. He has to know how this ends. He has to know that Ken and Jock are history and that the slate is clean, or, if not clean, that at least the chalk marks are illegible.

Davie feels as though he is going to choke. Mercy is a quality that he has largely forgotten about, tagging along through life in his brother's wake, abjuring any responsibility for things that have happened with the excuse that he has only been following orders. Simple Davie. Knuckles on the floor Davie. Not any more, though. One way or another Billy is going to set him free.

"So, Billy, what happens now?"

Billy seems oblivious. His head nods every so often.

"You in there, Billy? You still singing to yourself?"

Another bar. The melody repeats over and over again, worming through the verse towards the heart of the chorus. A pause at the end of the line.

"Whatever you do, Davie, whatever you do, don't say her name".

Slow Davie. He has to think for a second before the penny drops. In the working out he almost asks out loud, "What, Bex?"

But Davie is methodical. Davie, the kid in the adult body, takes a little while to work things out, but he usually gets there in the end. His heart is thumping in his chest. He can feel waves of nausea and relief washing through his body, but he manages to keep everything under control, manages to stay silent. Davie looks away from Billy, glancing quickly across at his brother and then down at Jock. Eyes swivel at ground level. The man on the floor is dribbling, a pig snuffling in the dirt. Davie is caught off guard by the realisation that his former master is impotent, and he takes a step back.

Billy doesn't move.

"Shit way to finish don't you think?" says Billy. "He's in there, somewhere. The bastard who killed my little girl is in there. The only reason I haven't pulled the trigger is I want him to know it's me. I want him to know it's me, Davie, do you understand?"

Davie understands. Full circle. End and beginning. It's time to walk away from the past.

"Aye", Davie replies, gathering his thoughts and his composure. Remember the Bizzies, he thinks, time to go home. "Did you do Ken?" he asks.

Billy looks up for the first time since Davie walked out into the courtyard. He shakes his head. He feels the warmth of the climbing sun on his face. George Harrison; Here Comes The Sun. A Perfect Day.

"Fuck off, Davie, fuck off home".

Eyes meet, cold and grey under the cloudless pillars of ozone. Davie can't hold Billy's gaze. He starts to say something but the words catch in his throat. You don't get many chances in life and somehow he knows that this is one of those important moments.

Davie clears his throat and whispers, "Take care, Billy".

Then he turns slowly and walks back towards the barn where the Transit is coughing its guts up in a cloud of diesel exhaust. He doesn't look back. He is free. Turning the corner and walking down the length of the barn towards the open double doors he makes a sign of the cross on his chest and whispers the word sorry to the boys and girls blocking the soak away at the back of the laboratory. Davie walks on past the open doors and across the concrete hard standing by the top field. He walks out into the damp tufts of thick meadow grass and away towards the coast. The land slides down to the sea and Davie can think of no better place to begin the process of getting lost.

Billy watches Davie disappear behind the barn at the far side of the courtyard. The pig at his feet snuffles, blowing tiny saliva bubbles mixed with grit. Billy looks down and smiles.

"Time to sing, Jockie boy, time to sing. Maybe we can sing together. Have you got a plan, big man, remember?"

At that moment Billy understands that his own singing days are over, that he will never croon again. The only singing to be done here is the singing of the baritone in the full metal jacket.

"You always were a shit. Just so you know, Jockie boy, this is for Bex, my little girl, and for Maggie, who should have been my big girl. One way or another, you've screwed both of them. Take note, big man, this is me screwing you."

Frantic bubble blowing. Jock tries to beg with his eyes. He tries to move his tongue, but he can't feel anything. His breathing is becoming laboured and he can feel his body slowly but inexorably shutting down.

For the shortest moment.

Colours don't register at speed. The passenger window of the Lexus is fading to pink. The human eye is designed to notice distinct movement, not background colour and no one seems to see the after shock. Doctor Jasari has forced Helen's body as far down into the foot well as it will go. Wind streams through the cabin, whistling on the jagged slivers of glass that cling to the window frames front and back. The tank is half full and the satellite navigation console is chiding him firmly but softly with a slurred, slow voice, bleeding to death electronically.

As far as the immediate future is concerned the doctor has neither the time nor the inclination to consider the finer points of interior automotive décor. His thoughts are focussed on geography, on the panorama of survival. Instow. East-the-Water. He has a vague impression of shapes, of coastal bulges and inlets, but the place names on the road signs might as well be written in ancient Greek. The Bideford bridge disappears as he climbs the ascent to the top of the first stretch of dual carriageway on the main trunk road east. Rolling Devonian metal to his left. Rusting Rovers and clapped out Citroens. Speed. He has one aim. Follow the green. Find the blue. Blue means motorway, means north, means city streets and anonymity. The question for Doctor Jasari is this; where does he ditch the Lexus and find an alternative means of escape?

Alex Berisa shifts uncomfortably in his seat, reaches between his thighs, and fishes the Glock out from between his legs. Speed limits. A safe braking distance. He has already been passed by two unmarked police cars running in suicide mode. Up ahead he can hear sirens. He keeps the Mondeo on the straight and level, losing miles and minutes in the quiet pursuit of his prey. Arbnor Jasari is getting away. As Alex hits a tail of traffic following a JCB on the rise out of Woodtown, he realises that he has a couple of hours of grim frustration ahead of him before the trail goes cold.

Arbnor Jasari. The doctor. The good doctor. Doctor Albania. The shit, the murdering bastard, the man who broke Rezarta, the man who turned his little sister into a vegetable, makes another exit from Alex Berisa's life. The sequence of events is becoming tediously repetitive. Alex can't quite believe that he got this close and missed. Atlantic Village. The Big Sheep. Road signs and tourist attractions. Shooting ducks at a fun fair. Alex wants his cuddly toy, but the carnie boys always have an edge, always seem to bend the barrel when you take the last shot. The bastards always have a line and an underlying threat. Roustabouts. Life on the road. The questions in Alex's head are these; which damned road? Where now?

Sirens are the backing track to Billy's silent vigil. He hears sirens in the lane, hears tyres on gravel and is aware of heavy footsteps in deep, menacing stereo. He sees shapes by walls, crouching shapes, shapes covered by car doors and brickwork. Billy is vaguely aware of caps and flak jackets, of chequerboard stripes and barked orders.

Jock’s body lies bleeding on the courtyard floor. Ken McCoist sits, uncomfortably relaxed, by a barn wall. Ken McCoist and Jock Cascarino, late of Barnstaple parish, formerly and briefly infamous for being run out of Glasgow city's nether regions by the Licensee, gaze out dumbly at a world fundamentally changed, and like dinosaurs grazing in the shadow of the comet, like the Romanov family in a cold country house parlour, they have no understanding of the revolution. Extinction comes abruptly. Nuclear Winter.

Billy is aware of death, aware of the metallic smell on the breeze, and with little Bex by his side, with the ghost girl in his arms, he sits next to a piece of rusting, fang-toothed farm machinery with a gun barrel pressed against his temple. One simple squeeze, a reaction, a muscle spasm, and he can be with Bex. The infant Bex, insubstantial and flowing, kneels by his side and he looks into her eyes. Freckles. Her soft hair drifts idly in a halo of spring sunlight. Her skin shines like marble in a Vatican courtyard. The faintest whisper of Leona waves to the two of them from the back of one of the police cars in the lane.

Billy spins the disk in his head one more time. He feels women in his arms. Bex starts to fade and he remembers cocaine wraps and Jack Daniels. Threads of life spill out of his fingers, spill into the dissolving ghost of Bex, and all that Billy wants to do is stop the world. He doesn't want Bex soiled by his own frailties, by the genetic code that unravels every time he feels the faint twinges of happiness.

Maggie is singing in the background, a fabulous, wealthy tart, the love that dare not speak its name, a love made real by eternal distance. Unrequited. Impossible. Billy knows in his heart, deep down in the well, that he could never love Maggie, but the superficiality of his longing for Jock's mate is what makes it real, is what made it seem so suitable. The smell of cordite is in the air and Billy has finally woken up to another home truth. She knew. This is about Bex, and Billy feels ashamed that his last words to the prick on the ground included bloody Maggie.

His right arm is aching. The pistol slips a millimetre, dragging against his skin. He hears a voice, calm and controlled.

"Put the gun down".

This is the moment for the final gesture, the final telling of truths. This is when Billy does something real. Thoughts appear, real thoughts; you've fucked up for the last time, Billy. A farewell. One last smile, one last look into her blue eyes, and there she is again, his little Bex, the only true love of his life, the girl holding his hand in the brilliant blue morning light, except that she is telling him not to come over, telling him not to twist against fate. Sudden clarity. Brilliant blue vision. A head free of static.

"Put the gun down and lie on the floor with your hands behind your head, or we will fire."

Bex floods away, downhill, bound by gravity. Billy is alone in the courtyard with Jock and Ken. His finger twitches on the trigger and he has a choice to make. Do it. Do it now, or accept the blindingly obvious facts of life; you never really had it in you, Billy, you were never really a player.

The voice sounds like Carol. The rigger boots in her hall. All of the things that he should have had, the simple things, the boredom and the warmth, all of these things sit at his right hand. To his left he has the drugs, the girls, the glittering spots and gels, all of them wrapped in shades of scarlet, shades that smell of grease paint and stale cigarette smoke.

There is, Billy realises, no choice to be made. He has always gone with the flow, with the least path of resistance, and today is no different from every single one of his yesterday's. Josey Wales splits. The gun spins through the air. Billy falls forward. His head hits the ground a few inches away from Jock. Billy can almost taste the last decaying spots of Jock's saliva. For the first time Billy notices the smell, a rank mixture of expensive cologne and faecal matter. He has time to smile. Got the bastard.

Boots on gravel. Knees in his back. Cuffs. He is manhandled into a kneeling position, his arms pinned and locked behind his back. Marksmen. Blues. A moment shared with the cadaverous Jock. Billy can feel the imprint of gravel on his cheek, can taste worm earth on his teeth. He can't hear a thing. The music is dead, the words a vague shade of grey, the melody a childhood memory. He feels hands under his armpits and he is hauled to his feet. Now that the job is done, now that the ghosts have faded and Billy is alone amid a sea of uniforms and flashing lights, all that he can think as he is pushed down and forced into a squad car is that his shoes are ruined. He feels hollow, as though he has forgotten something important, and as the rear doors of the police car close, as he feels the weight of the law on the seat next to him in the back of the car, he wants to cry but he is as dry as a bone.

An Affair to Remember

Blue and white tape. Black and yellow stripes. White suits and latex gloves. There is a patrol car parked across the entrance to Sillick Farm, and a traffic cop leans against the door with his arms folded across his chest. He is watching the house opposite, the bed and breakfast, watching and waiting for the uniforms to finish a cup of tea and make their notes.

A statement. Descriptions. Vague impressions of height and weight. Hair colours. Skin hues. Makes of car are always a problem. The number of shots. Clothes. Blood on the broken tarmac by the front wheel of the patrol car.

"Shit", he mutters to himself as he jerks away from the car. "SOCO!"

A world of samples and dust. The lane is rapidly filled with crouching bodies, bodies intent on tracing every last splash of blood on the unmade farm road, on grass and fence posts. Glass shards are bagged. A bullet casing is picked up gingerly between the folded edge of a uniformed cuff. More tape. Chalked outlines around blood stains.

In the courtyard the bodies are being zipped away. Identification. James Charles Stuart Cascarino. Kenneth Graham McCoist. Two-thirds of a firm. A board meeting gone wrong, but still quorate. Supposition. A bullet to the head is an easy spot, but for the body sprawled up against the barn wall there is no apparent cause of death. Instructions are given. The mortuary. Scenes of crime. Post mortems. Ambulance crews slide black plastic onto stretchers and push them into waiting but redundant resuscitation bays. Certification. Dead at the scene.

One of the plain clothes boys wants a search of the fields. The uniforms will get to spend sunny Monday in the country, searching in lines. Fine tooth combs. Another group emerge from the laboratory on the upper floor of the barn with arms full of plastic evidence bags. Samples. Test tubes. A computer carcass. Dishes and scissors and spoons. Blankets. A music player. Toiletries and a pair of flip flops. Tubs and tubs of neatly prepared sachets of something yellow. The flash of a camera bulb sneaks out through the gap in one of the upstairs window shutters.

In a squad car parked over by the far barn wall two detectives are talking to a sallow-skinned youth, who is taking long drags on a bottle of still mineral water. Shaun Lloyd is taking the greatest pleasure in giving the boys in blue a full description of events, about how he was dragged out here against his will and was being framed. The look of utter disbelief on the officers' faces is blatant. The questions twist and turn. The bottle is drained and Shaun is cautioned. He is left to stew in the perverse juices of random fate while the detectives consult their superior. A quiet little room and a tape recorder beckon. Shaun is just grateful to be out in the open air.

There are insufficient officers at the scene to perform a detailed search, so the Inspector in charge splits the uniforms up and sends them off in different directions to check on the basic lie of the land. No heroics. They are told to watch out for someone called Davie, one David Alan McCoist, the missing member of the triumvirate, noted for acts of outstanding bravery in the face of impossible odds. Davie is a simple bruiser, none too bright, but neither is he malicious. That was the modus operandi of his older and recently deceased brother. There are no tears being shed.

South along the back of the far barn, walking slowly, looking into angles of shadow and watching for sudden shifts in light, one of the uniformed constables makes his way toward the field at the bottom of the farm complex. There is a smell of diesel in the air, but he can't hear the sound of combustion. As he approaches the end of the barn he becomes aware of a subtle shift in the outline of the building. A door is open and pushed flat against the wall. The officer checks behind him but sees no one. He edges forward slowly and peers into the gloom. His eyes take a second or two to adjust from morning sunlight to dusty, exhaust laced shadow. Colours begin to merge, a ragged paint job, primary bright and flecked with rust at the wheel arches. He edges into the barn, carefully checking the corners as he approaches the van. On the side of the Transit there is a bright flash. He recognises the symbol and the legend from a house call made a few days previously.

"Shit".

The Eureka moment. Discovery described as simply as that.

The officer pulls his radio up towards his chin. No bloody signal. The North Devon coast is a digital nightmare. Time to get back to the courtyard, time to get support.

The huddle. Reports. The old lady at the bed and breakfast has proved to be no better nor worse than the average witness. She is, apparently, generous with the tea bags and the biscuit tin. She saw two men on the road, and then in the drive, one of them shooting into a silver saloon, and then running after the car. That was when she too ran for the safety of her kitchen, when she rang the triple nine and then remembered to lock her doors.

The sound of cars and sirens, the sound of someone knocking on her front porch was one hell of a fright, but not half as bad as the sight of the man running up the old farm lane with that gun in his hand. She thought that he might have been in his early thirties, maybe a bit older, with dark hair, nicely done, expensive. He definitely had dark skin, a sun tan, like she remembered all the boys had from that summer in seventy-six. A stifled, embarrassed giggle. Really dark. She wasn't sure about his height. Maybe six foot. Clothes were a problem. Jeans. A jacket. Brown or black. Maybe blue. It was difficult, she said, with so many images and thoughts in your head.

The car was a mystery. Silver and messy, but that was all she was able to tell them. Apart from the windows being smashed. She had no idea where the car or the man had gone. Back to Barnstaple probably, she had said, in a tone of voice that suggested that it was no surprise.

All points. Descriptions are broadcast. Police computer checks suggest a Lexus. The hunt begins.

At about the same time that the first officer is reading the words on the side of the Transit, a second officer is kneeling on the cracked earth at the back of the laboratory barn, running his finger through a trace of white powder. Quicklime. The place stinks to high heaven and he has a bad feeling about the day. The ground is rutted with the imprint of old tractor wheels. Up against the barn's back wall there is an upturned wheel barrow. The officer can see a smaller rut leading up to a plastic manhole cover. It's nearly two weeks since the last rains, so the track has to be at least as old as that. On the ground next to the manhole cover there is length of metal. An invitation.

The smell reaches out and makes a grab at his nose and throat as he moves closer to the plastic cover. The officer is swooning under a heavy cloud, in a melange of earth and metal, of maggot meal and black decay. His mind is already reeling, but the compulsion to see, the compulsion to witness, is overwhelming. He starts to shout for help, and as he does so he reaches out for the metal bar and inserts one end into the lip where the plastic cover fits snugly into its hole.

The thing has been opened before and the seal is already broken. The lid lifts with relative ease and flips over. Flies. Green bellied emerald flies swarm up and out of the blackness, causing the police officer to throw himself backwards. He gags as he falls, spilling his guts onto the front of his flak jacket and then onto the floor, and he turns away and starts to crawl as soon as he feels solid earth beneath his spine. His head is full of the swarm, full of the buzz and drone of putrefaction, and in the middle of the swarm he can see an empty eye socket staring out at him from this heart of darkness in the middle of a Devon farmyard.

Boots. Hands on his shoulders. In the background he can hear the sound of grown men retching. He can feel men he calls friends, men who he would normally rely on, men accustomed to the sights and sounds of mean lives, momentarily falling apart. He is filled up to the hilt by the empty eye socket. Tears fall. The involuntary twitch of sleeplessness starts.

From the direction of the barn, moving closer, impatient and caustic, comes the voice of the detective in charge at the scene. "What the bloody hell is going on?"

A ring tone. Plastic vibrations. Personal effects rattle in an evidence bag. A mobile rings four times and cuts to voice mail. There is nobody home, nobody taking calls this morning, nobody except the Scene of Crime officer who is tagging the collected exhibits. Gloved hands fish around in one of the evidence bags and pull out a silver and black Samsung. Call history. Missed calls. The late James Charles Stuart Cascarino provides a telephone number and a voicemail trail.

speak after the tone. To re-record your message press star at any time.

"Jesus, Jock. Now's not the time to go AWOL. Call me as soon as you're done out there."

Maggie slams the phone onto the kitchen table and paces the kitchen tiles. She wants to know what is going on. Left to her own devices, left to her wild side, where the imagination runs in a slow riot like bindweed, she has already worked her way through a dozen fanciful scenarios; the femme fatale, terrible injuries, a car in a ditch, another deal, another retirement, the McCoists suddenly getting ideas above their station.

One call, one sound, that familiar voice, that mixing of emotions, is all that it would take to settle her. Then she could be sarcastic or she could chide Jock for his unthinking bloody alpha male priorities and hormonal negligence, and then, as soon as he tries to pour oil on her troubled waters, as soon as he infuriates her with his calm, business voice, she will know that everything is fine and dandy.

Coffee. Tea. Maggie decides on tea. Electrodes at her temples. Maggie feels like Elizabeth Taylor, like a cat on a hot tin roof. Southern heat and boredom. Tension in spades. She is caged in the middle of an electric storm, and for all of her venom Maggie feels toothless and naked. She hates the waiting game and this is the biggest game of her life. She breathes in deeply and tries to focus. The kettle starts to hum. Poker face. She needs to practice her poker face.

In the background radio voices fly brightly through the morning; a discussion about breast feeding, the subject of this morning's pod cast, downloadable, and absolutely, totally annoying. The kettle starts to crank up towards the hubble-bubble of boiling. Maggie reaches across the work surface by the kitchen window to turn off the radio, but she decides that she needs music. Music soothes the savage beast. She hits the station button a couple of times and gets the latest boy band dross. Summer loves and broken hearts. She listens for a moment or two before deciding that silence is golden. It's all too twee and infantile.

The click of the automatic switch on the kettle. Maggie throws a tea bag into a mug and lifts the kettle up and forward.

"Bloody hell!"

The boiling water has not yet settled back into a calmer state of simple hotness and the water jumps from the spout and misses the cup, spilling white hot blisters of water across the counter top and down the cupboard doors. Maggie's cup hand is splashed and the burn bites. She slams the kettle down onto the work surface and pushes the cold tap to maximum so that she can stop the skin on the back of her hand from staining red with the scald.

A morning gone from bad to worse, and all that she wants is word from the outside world, a word that says, "Book the flights, love, we're on our way".

Maggie grabs the house phone from the table and wills it to ring. It's not fair. The faceless systems that underpin the digital communications revolution aren’t playing a straight bat. It's not too much to bloody well ask, is it? she thinks.

Maggie sinks into one of the chairs by the table. Where did all of her dreams go? What happened to the brightness of expectation, the shine on her skin when she first walked out into the big wide world? All gone. Some of the desiccation is caused by the inevitable dimming of youth's first blush, that inexorable slide into tiredness and ill temper that comes with the slow physical disintegration caused by free radicals, some of it, but not all of it. That’s the tragedy of the human condition; eighteen in your head and incontinent in an NHS bed.

This is the chance to put things right, the last chance to escape the chains put around her limbs by a world that spins down through other people's lives. Her bastard husband. The bruises and the excuses. Jock fixed that and she will be eternally grateful to him for it. She will love him after a fashion for that, but she won't forgive. In a way she is almost glad that Leona and Bex are being sacrificed. Part of it is spite, but she is also relieved that they will be spared the same old shit.

She punches numbers into the phone and waits. The lines and airwaves hook up. The phone rings. Once. Twice. Hearing the third ring Maggie fully expects the carefully chosen words of the voicemail lady to lay down the usual barriers to direct communication, but Maggie's rattling train of thought is rudely derailed by a male voice.

"Hello?"

Maggie is silent. Shock. Where is the Glaswegian overtone? She can't think.

"Hello?"

The irresistible impulse to fill the spaces in between the words pulls her forward. "Who's there?"

Silence at the other end.

"Is that...Maggie?"

Overtime. Cogs and wheels. Two plus two. Caller Identification.

Maggie hits the red button and slams the phone back down onto the kitchen table. She has to hack away at the undergrowth to reveal the lost city of her imagination. Wilderness is rampaging through her skull. She hears but doesn’t really notice the sound of tyres on the gravel driveway outside. Confusion. Jock has lost his phone, the stupid bugger. Stolen. Taken away. Panic. Everything is being taken away.

She gets up and looks out of the kitchen window, expecting to see Jock and the boys climbing out of the Lexus. Instead, she sees white, blue and day-glo yellow. She sees blue and red and chequer board green.

Traced. The wilderness is suddenly spreading out and dragging her down, right here in the kitchen. She is pinned to the harsh walls of the domestic mausoleum by creeping vines, smothered in the leaf mould decay covering the floor of the untamed land at her feet. The bad thoughts have come true. The femme fatale? The car on its roof in a ploughed field?

She instinctively knows that impersonal tragedy is a myth. The McCoists? For a fleeting second she believes it, but then the simple truth comes bursting through. Jock has really screwed it up this time.

Maggie bends forward across the worktop. Her head sinks down onto the polished granite surface and she starts to cry as the doorbell chimes.

"Oh God. Not now, not…"

*

There is a little secret that Bex hasn't told anyone. The secret tells of a short lived moment of peace, a brief interlude, a space between the blip and slide of the monitor soundtrack that pervades every spare inch of the intensive care unit. Bex is aware. Her eyes remain closed, but she can distinguish shades of light from under her eyelids. Nothing much makes any sense and her head feels as if it is wrapped in cotton wool, but she is rising, she is cognisant.

In her thoughts she throws open the patio doors at her father’s house and takes a slow step around his garden, shuffling past flower pots full of cigarette butts, one more casualty on the mend, a dressing-gowned remnant of the whistling generation. The electronic pulse to her left rattles like howitzer fire, a distant memory causing a Pavlovian response. She screws her eyes tightly shut and tries not to remember. The cotton wool in her head is surprisingly strong, but she slowly starts to surface. She breaks through into clean air.

Crêpe footsteps. A weight on her left arm. The skin on the back of her left hand tingles slightly. Catheterised. Saline infusions. Clipboards. A strip of brighter light above the water bed. Bex can hear sounds washing over the ramparts of her consciousness, humming notes, staccato glissades, particle waves, and she is both reassured by their proximity and confused by the language. A sideways tongue. Accents of angels. Angles of expression. Something in the tone, some vague sense of timing and cadence overcomes her sense of displacement and turns the amplifier up a notch. Familiarity.

With the shapes and sounds come pictures, spooling reels in her head, the ticker tape grains of memory. Oxford. Dreaming spires come to mind and seem strangely appropriate. Edge curled snapshots, photographs that have been bent back and forth so much that the polished gloss of the paper has cracked right across a face. The melody of her years plays in time with the memory of her father's dulcet tones. Vic Damone on black vinyl. The cracked background hiss of ancient treble. As far as the immediate world goes, Bex can remember a car door slamming and the sound of the doorbell. Ding dong, pussy in the well.

Rapid eye movement. The flicker. A muscle spasm. A finger moves and Carol looks up. Dave's reactions are a second behind Carol’s sudden movements, a video voice out of synchronisation. Carol grips Bex's hand that little bit tighter. A long breath drawn in and held. The trumpet involuntary.

"Bex?" Broken and cracked. Strangled.

Rising from her seat, Carol is brushing hair from her daughter's forehead. One of the nurses attending the intensively ill spills across the opposite side of the cot, reading vital signs in the colour of the girl's cheeks and the dilation of her abruptly open eyes.

Tears. Carol is repeating her daughter's name over and over again, burying her head in Dave's shoulder as medical staff run checks and ask questions, moving Bex into the first stage of waking. A wall of simple questions, names and dates and observational logic. Dave is crying too, overwhelmed by his proximity to other people’s lives. Throats constrict. Smiles tighten and teeth are bared. Emotion overload. Relief. Sheer bloody relief. God-forsaking, heaven-praising, ball-breaking relief. A world of inner promises and deals, the life changes writ large for a moment, meant truly, forever, anything now that prayers have been answered.

The moment passes in a bewildering array of tests and mechanics as drips are changed and monitors checked, as wires and plugs and tubes are re-aligned and removed from flesh. The process and method of recovery is definite and measured. Explanations. Words. Bex is largely oblivious to anything other than the sense that the world is solid again. She emerges from a black hole, from the amniotic warmth of coma, and smiles the smile of birth. Carol's face is split apart by a wild, untameable grin as the unit doctor tries to explain.

"…not out of the woods, although the signs are encouraging. To use the vernacular, she's been on a pretty bad trip, but with time and care there's no reason why she shouldn't make a full recovery. There will be tests, of course, just to make sure, to make sure that there's no lasting side effects, as it were, but I'm sure Rebecca will be up and about in no time…"

White noise. Dave tries to pay attention, tries to take it all in so that he can give Carol the low down when she eventually climbs down from the cloud, but he really only grasps the basics. Checks. The possibility of brain damage. Probably not, but they have to be sure. It might take a while to be certain and he has a vague sense of another conversation taking place. University. Wanting to be a vet. Probably have to take a gap year. Lab reports. Lethal combinations of drugs. Acid freaks and flashbacks.

The doctor withdraws and leaves the family to their reunion. The tests can wait; five minutes; an hour; they have all the time in the world. Except that Bex is looking worried. She tries to speak but the cells that form her mouth and vocal chords seem to have rearranged themselves to form a child's sand pit. She coughs and tries again, then manages to make a gesture towards the locker beside her cot . Water. Warm water, but it tastes. It's as simple as that; it tastes.

Bex whispers once but Carol shakes her head and leans forward.

Bex tries again, "Where's Dad?"

That's when the tears turn to monsoon rains. Carol hugs Bex tightly and sobs. Dave stands behind Carol and tries to put an arm around her shoulder, to put his hand on her back, but he finds it impossible to complete the manoeuvre. His hand dangles in the space between their lives, a few inches away from his lover's skin. The moment is gone and he smiles the spare part smile of embarrassed exclusion.

Carol fusses and worries, "You'll see, love, everything will be fine now."

There is gratitude on both of their faces, but Bex insists, "I know. I'm sorry, Mum, so sorry.” Tears and hugs. Then the inevitable, “Where's Dad?"

A lump rises in Carol's throat. There are a thousand things she wants to say about Billy but this is simply not the time.

"You know your Dad, love. He's never where he's supposed to be. He'll be along in a minute. He's been here with you. Probably just popped out. It's not his fault, love."

And the thought comes with an inevitable predictability; it never is, darling, it never is…

Billy sits alone in paper slippers and overalls. They have taken his clothes for forensic tests. He sits on hard wood. The white tile acoustic. Shoes without laces. The melody is gone and his head is full of random lyrics divorced from their arrangements. Anyway, who needs an audience when you have the only real people in the world within your eye line. The six year old ghost of his beloved Bex is standing to his left. Vic Damone, dashingly-smooth in a dark-grey, double-breasted suit, is standing to his right. This is the day that old crooner's dread, the day that the music dies. While Billy sits quiet and still amid the heavy metal sounds of the custody suite, his companions reach out and take his hands in theirs and the three of them begin to mime and mug like savant idiots, and with the sound turned down, with the picture fading to a single white dot, they start to belt out Billy’s favourite song without shifting a single molecule of air:

Again, this couldn't happen again (6)

This is that once in a lifetime

This is the thrill divine

What's more, this never happened before

Though I have prayed for a lifetime

That such as you would suddenly be mine

Mine to hold as I'm holding you now and yet never so near

Mine to have when the now and the here disappear

What matters, dear, for

When this doesn't happen again

We'll have this moment forever…

END

To find out more about Clive’s stories, novels, free podcasts and downloads, and videos why not visit:

Also by Clive and available as free Dancing Pig eBooks:

Dancing Pig Originals

Songs of Bliss – a thriller – a full length novel first published in 2011

Into the Walled Garden – poetry - collected works 2001-2010

Five Shorts

Jamul’s Happy Day

Beasts Within series of stories

But for the Moon

Fancy and the Flutter

Devil in the Detail

Lord of the North Wind

Nine Lives

Ragtrade Gepetto

The Beast Within

The Marchese's Gift

The Mechanic's Curse

The Tender Kiss

Bastille Day

ShadowGrimm series of stories

A Question of Spin

Airs and Graces

All For One

Barley Sour

Beginning with Smith

Big Black Boots

Do Unto Others

Happy Families

Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill

Miss Jones and the Refugee

Phantom of Sixpenny Stalls

Picking the Wings off Crane Flies

Terry's Amazing Shin Pads

The Mobile Phone

The Politicians New Speech

The Television Bride

Towering Dreams

Where The Grass Is Greenest

Where There's a Will

Bogey Bear stars in…

The Incredible Shrinking Bogey Bear

Arklands series of stories

Arklands, part 1 - Beachhead

Cry ‘Havoc series of stories

Transcript

Cry ‘Freedom’ series of stories

Acts of Faith – Clive’s latest full length novel

About Dancing Pig Media

Dancing Pig is Clive Gilson’s own imprint, designed especially to provide production and ebook dissemination services, initially for Clive’s own work, but with an eye on helping other writers in the future.

The Dancing Pig philosophy is simple – embrace technology and use its broad ability to create presence. It is, in fact, a methodology based on the old Dickensian philosophy of serialization, but rather than stories appearing once a week in a magazine, new stories appear pretty much once a week across the globe in electronic format, using aggregators and direct publishing at sites like Smashwords.

Why serialization? Because publishing is changing. The old format – months spent on a manuscript, editing, luck, agents – just slows the process down. Our aim is to engage with readers by writing and publishing stories in bite size chunks, giving authors the chance to create variety and broad interest by working on multiple series at once.

So, we’re starting with Clive’s back catalogue and with some of his new work, then, once we get established and prove the process, we’ll be opening up to support other authors.

Lyrics:

1 You’re Breaking My Heart, Vic Damone, - words and music by Pat Genaro and Sunny Skylar

2 You’re Breaking My Heart, Vic Damone, - words and music by Pat Genaro and Sunny Skylar

3 Again, Doris Day, later Vic Damone, Written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman

4 You’re Breaking My Heart, Vic Damone, - words and music by Pat Genaro and Sunny Skylar

5 Cincinnati Dancing Pig, Vic Damone, Written by Guy Wood and Al Lewis

6 Again, Doris Day, later Vic Damone, Written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman



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