© Magnus Graham
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UNDERNEATH THE ROWAN TREE
The house is such a mess. And I was always such a stickler for keeping things neat and tidy. Gazing dreamily into our enclosed back garden… The grass is so long, too long, the hedge overgrown. Sunlight is all but banished now. Memories are fuzzy. I remember the old aircraft hanger… not round these parts, but where I grew up. Disused since the end of the war, overgrown and left to deteriorate… abandoned. Our garden is like that now.
The rowan tree still stands, dwarfed by the hedge, its sturdy trunk partially obscured by the grass. Summer days… I loved to sit in the shade of the rowan tree, reading or simply daydreaming. It felt so peaceful there. Perhaps I should persuade Douglas to tidy the garden. Or perhaps not… A wife shouldn’t nag.
The clumsy rattle of a key in the front door lock causes me to shudder. The silence is broken. Hastily I begin to potter around the kitchen. Heavy footsteps in the hall are cumbersome and graceless. A shiver tingles my spine as the door slams shut, the sound echoing around a noiseless house. I can already tell Douglas has been drinking again.
“You do realise it’s not selfish to make your own decisions, Edith?” Linda’s words… not here and now, but so long ago. Her smile, warm, yet strained. How many years has it been? She was always so smart, so caring… such a beautiful bridesmaid. “It’s not too late to call it off.”
Memories confuse and complicate. Douglas mutters to himself, staggering uncertainly into the kitchen. My fussing around feels fevered, insincere. I make no attempt to greet him… best to remain silent. Rocking slightly he pauses, glazed eyes gazing out the window… out to my spot under the shelter of the rowan. He has his regrets.
I was always such a timid child. Linda always told me to be more assertive. I sometimes wish I could have been more like her. More memories… She was always a confident girl.
Douglas plonks his weight upon his favourite chair at the kitchen table causing it to squeal painfully on the laminated floor. Perhaps he fails to notice my irritation, my hands now planted squarely on my hips. Preoccupied with a take-away meal he chases the few remaining chips around a polystyrene tray, eventually skewering one on a plastic fork. Failing to properly locate his mouth the chip drops to the floor.
“Oh, Douglas Macmillan, I just don’t know what to do with you.” My best attempt at being assertive, scornful even, goes unheeded. Linda would never have tolerated any of Douglas’s nonsense. He was always wary of her. “That pub will be the death of you,” I warn him.
Grunting, perhaps in the way of some form of primal acknowledgement, his eyes search blindly for the elusive wedge of deep fried potato that lies somewhere on the filthy floor of the kitchen.
Perhaps I should leave him to brood. Perhaps I should have left him long ago… Once again memories of the past flirt with the here and now. Despite its run-down appearance the garden beckons me. I always did see things with more clarity while sitting under the shade of the rowan.
Such a mess… Abandoned, just like the aircraft hanger of childhood recollection. Fences require paint, the hedge needs trimmed. Concealed in the grass are cans, bottles, plastic bags… felt from the shed roof. The shed itself sags now, as if carrying some invisible burden. Bleached by the weather, it’s pale, old before its time.
Standing underneath the rowan tree now… I miss my home. Not here, but the place where I grew up. Perhaps here will forever be my home now. Douglas stands in the kitchen, rocking slightly on uncertain feet, gazing outside. Do his eyes even see me, as he stares into the fading daylight? The artificial light from the kitchen seems to frame his regrets. Like an actor upon a brightly illuminated stage his pain is clearly etched on his features, perfectly framed by the pebble-dashed concrete wall. His bulbous nose glows red, criss-crossed by a legion of tiny blood vessels. My father also had his regrets. I can see that also, inscribed upon this actor’s face. A single tear rolls down his cheek, confusing things, making everything fuzzy.
I never could provide Douglas with the son he longed for… Nor could I provide a daughter. Even my mum managed that. At the hospital they told me why I couldn’t conceive, but I recall very little of what was actually said. Despite this Douglas stood by me, cared for me. I’ve often wondered why… the son of an abusive drunk and an over protective mother. What would Freud have made of him? And as I withdrew from the world he even stopped drinking. Nobody else sees his sensitive side, the caring side. He helped me through that time, and slowly I returned to something like my former self.
The garden was so pretty then. Even the neighbours said so. They don’t even notice me now. Perhaps they seldom did. As the months passed by and I grew stronger, Douglas gradually sunk inside himself. A wall of silence held his demons inside. But with alcohol weakening his defences it was only a matter of time before the darkness within sprang forth.
He never meant to hurt me. And the very next day he told me everything, weeping through tears of torment as he bared his innermost. Cradling me in his arms he promised change… too late. I remained silent, my head lolling around awkwardly in an unnatural position, my mouth tinged blue and my body rigid.
The light has all but faded now… time to say goodnight. Douglas knew I loved my little spot unde
rneath the rowan tree… knew I always felt at peace there.
He’s going to kill me!
That’s the last thing that went through my mind. Well, the second last thing, if you include the bullet shot from the silenced handgun that rested against my head.
So that was it then, that was life.
It was always a mistake getting myself involved with Ferrier’s mob… and not a small mistake either. The thing is, I knew it too - deep down, I mean.
Only last night I was watching some telly programme about people who mounted up larger and larger credit card bills. In order to block out the reality – reality being that the money had to be paid back – the cretins on the TV simply went out on another spending spree. To them, shopping was a drug. It gave a brief high, then - when the high wore off - the reality of their actions hit home, leaving them desperate for their next hit. And from there on in they would spend more and more money they didn’t have in a futile attempt to recreate that original feeling of euphoria.
Maybe you’re in debt - dependent on loans and always in the red - and if that’s the case, you’re more like me than you care to realise. Oh sure, you’ve got a nice house, a respectable job, the latest model of car and all the current fashions in home comforts. You probably take an annual holiday abroad with your family, a two week package holiday, every July without fail. Of course, you pretend you’re nothing like me. After all, you’re a respectable member of society, everything I’m not. To you, I’m the sickness in society, the social sponger who claims every benefit going, the drug dealer outside the school gates. I’m everything you hate and despise, a focus for all your hate and misery.
But look a little closer and you have nothing, just like me. You don’t own your house; you’ve got a long term mortgage and you can barely afford the monthly payments. Your car’s bought on hire purchase; you can afford the latest furniture because interest rates are low and you believe the loan can be paid back. And you’re already thinking of next year’s holiday, even though this year’s has still to be paid for. You put in extra unpaid hours at the office because your boss knows that you need the job… the job you hate. You’re nothing but a whore for some multi national company, a company whose directors are making huge bonuses while you work harder and harder, all the time becoming older and more used up. One thing’s for sure, if you’re not already like me, one day we will be the same. We’ll both be dead. The world won’t stop turning and you won’t even be missed.
The reasons I’m dead, well they’re simple. I started doing work for Paul Ferrier’s mob, the odd job here and there. I needed the cash. Only the more I got, the more I needed, and all the time the work was getting riskier. The goalposts were shifting and I didn’t even realize it. Before long I was carrying larger quantities, mainly heroin and crack I think, but I didn’t always know for sure, and I knew not to ask questions.
So how did it all happen?
You probably already know how it happened. After all, you’ve got a job as well; we’re not that different. Imagine you’re at an office party, the drinks are flowing and you’re feeling good for once. On top of all that, your boss is being uncharacteristically nice to you, telling you how great you are and how the company truly appreciates you. You know he’s as pissed as you are, but you’re enjoying the compliments and he seems to be hinting at promotion and a pay rise. After a while he introduces you to some of the company big wigs and you’re keen to impress, to appear successful and dynamic. You feel on top of the world, God-like, and before you know it you’re becoming more and more involved with company affairs. You’re digging yourself a hole and you don’t realise it. After a few vague promises you’re in deeper, taking on more and more work. For that one night, your ego was expertly massaged and you revelled in a bloated sense of your own importance.
The next morning you wake up and suddenly realise how small you really are.
I had enthusiastically agreed to do the job. I remember telling the people who had suddenly become my best mates, that: “Paul Ferrier could always trust me,” that: “I really respected the big man.”
God, I’d never even met Ferrier himself. I’m not even sure what he looks like, but over the course of the evening, with his people telling me about how the “big man thought highly of me,” and how “this job could be a great opportunity”. The compliments had kept flowing, along with the drink and the Charlie.
You know how I felt, of course you do. For one night I was on top of the world, God-like.
I woke up the next morning, head thumping and my skin sticky with sweat. Instinctively I knew that my latest assignment was a bad idea. I gazed at the scumbag in the mirror - the dodgy slimy creature you’d cross the street to avoid - and he stared back through a fringe of greasy black hair. He raised a dirty, nicotine stained hand to flick the unwashed hair from his eyes. He’s a mess.
I gripped the bathroom sink to steady myself, my overgrown finger nails thick with dirt. Raising my eyes I saw that the low-life scumbag in the mirror was still eyeing me with contempt, his eyes all bloodshot and lifeless. At one time they were eyes that burned so brightly, radiating hope and excitement. I rubbed the untidy stubble on my chin while gazing at his mouth, all crooked yellow teeth and cold sores. The mirror didn’t lie, and at that moment I saw myself for what I was.
The job involved a two hundred mile drive; I was told that much. I hadn’t a clue what the street value of my cargo was, but I knew it was a lot, certainly more than I’d ever carried before. Perhaps this sounds odd, but in many ways I wanted to get caught, wanted it to be over.
I certainly got my wish. I did get arrested, and I had the naivety to think it might finally be all over. I recall the sense of relief that swept over me as I confessed everything. The police inspector was good to me; always made sure I had a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He seemed to understand that I was a victim as much as anyone. I hadn’t realised that he knew me better than I knew myself. The gang had set me up, so he told me. He was here to help. He told me I could also help him, work for the police; that I could help society and the judge would be lenient. My ego was stroked and - true to form - I took the bait. I turned grass.
That’s how I came to be where I am now, lying on my living room floor with a bullet hole in my head.
Hang on a minute! What the hell’s going on? I know he shot me. I simply knelt down with my hands behind my head - just like he asked. Hardly a blaze of glory. I even remember the rippling of the polythene sheeting beneath my feet; always a dead giveaway. But if I’m still thinking…
The voice has just come from behind me.
“Did you have a good life?”
Opening my eyes, I spin round to face my questioner. There’s some guy smiling at me, and he looks oddly familiar, but I can’t quite place him. A carnivorous grin reveals a set of immaculately polished teeth. The guy’s well tanned and has a short white beard; late forties or early fifties, I’d say.
“Who the fuck are you?” I ask defensively, noticing a gold Rolex on one wrist and a chunky gold bracelet on the other.
He laughs briefly, all confident and a touch intimidating, before lighting a cigarette and snapping his Zippo lighter shut without offering one to me. Prick.
“Me,” he says, with another laugh before blowing a plume of smoke straight into my face. “I’m God.”
“Yeah right,” I mutter back. “And I’m John the fucking Baptist.”
The smile instantly slides from his face and a shiver runs the length of my spine. “I’m not kidding, Anthony Cairns,” he says.
Get a grip Tony, I’m telling myself. Let the wise guy play his little game.
“Oh, it’s no game,” he says, as if seeing inside my head. “I can read your every thought and I know everything you know, which, let’s face it, is not exactly much,” he adds, all calm and self-assured.
Distractedly I wonder what God is doing smoking, as another plume of smoke is blown into my face, making my eyes water slightly.
“I can smoke if I want to,” he says, with a knowing smile. “One of the benefits of being immortal is that it can’t kill you.”
“Why should I believe you’re God?” I ask, conscious that my voice is betraying signs of nervousness. I straighten my shoulders in an attempt to appear more confident. “I mean you could be the devil in disguise for all I know.”
He just glares back at me and another cold shiver runs down my spine. Suddenly a realisation hits me: Shit! I’ve just questioned God. And I’ve accused him of being the devil. I swallow hard, my mouth dry.
“Fair question I suppose.” The smile returns. “You see me as your subconscious imagines the ultimate authority to be. All your life you’ve only ever given respect to the people you fear. If you don’t fear them, you’re usually looking to exploit them for your own selfish ends.
“You remember your old school teacher, Mr Docherty?”
God takes another draw of his cigarette as the memory comes back to me.
“Now there is someone who really tried to help you, gave you every chance to succeed. But you - being the lazy, apathetic louse that you are - took that as a sign of weakness to be used against him. On the other hand, there was Mr Gervais. Now there was one sadistic bastard. The man ruled the classroom by fear and intolerance, and all the while you kissed his arse at every opportunity. Pathetic.”
God’s face changes expression, hardening as his eyes burrow into mine. I feel my mouth becoming drier and the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise.
“So, here you are on your judgement day.” His voice seems louder, stronger. “As I know everything there is to know about you, do you really think that I would appear to you looking like Mahatma Ghandi?”
I stand tight lipped, legs trembling. The phrase, “JUDGEMENT DAY,” reverberates around my skull and all of a sudden I’ve got the very distinct feeling that all is not well. Surely this is just a dream, some sort of cruel nightmare. Surely there is no way that this man is actually God.
“Take a look around you,” he continues, arms open and the cigarette now nowhere to be seen.
I look around for the first time, but there’s nothing to see, just the two of us surrounded by empty nothingness.
“Maybe you would like to see your home, take a look around and see what’s happening.”
I nod my head slowly. I feel the need to get back, to make a better go of things, to have one more chance. As he indicates behind me I turn around nervously.
Through some sort of window or portal I can now see directly into my flat, into the squalid tenement filing cabinet I call home. I can see into what passes as my living room, and Ferrier’s hit man is still there. There’s a body lying on the floor… my body, lying lifelessly on the polythene sheeting, legs largely obscured by a threadbare sofa.
“Now there’s a guy who takes a bit of pride in his work.”
God’s statement appears to be tinged with admiration. The assassin - the gangster’s pock marked expert in refuse disposal - clicks open a briefcase to reveal a sizeable array of shining knives, saws, pliers and even a couple of small hammers.
“Look at the tools of his trade, all kept clean and orderly,” God adds, a distinct impression of pride in his voice, as he places a comforting arm around my shoulder. “Tools that are obviously well cared for, usually a good indicator of a true professional.”
“You sound as if you approve,” I stammer, feeling nauseous as the hit-man selects a hack saw from his briefcase.
“You see,” God continues. “That man there has shown more professional pride in the last hour than you did in you entire life.
“Remember that time after you were expelled from school; not that this made much difference to your education, as you were seldom there anyway. You then decided to embark on a career as a petty criminal, but even back then you were nothing more than a slovenly scam merchant, always opportunistically searching for the quick buck, while never being prepared to put in any real effort. Do you recall selling small quantities of cannabis resin outside the gates of your former school?”
“But…” I stutter, my body shaking with fear and dread. “But it wasn’t exactly hard stuff, just the dried out crap nobody wanted.”
“Exactly! The crap nobody wanted, tightly wrapped in cling film. No professional pride and not an ounce of shame for the fact that you were conning those kids out of the high they had paid good money for.”
His voice has become quiet and soothing, almost hypnotic, while also betraying a tone of marked disappointment. “And more recently - when you were caught transporting a more sizable consignment of a local gangster’s merchandise - how did you react? You turned grass, switched sides at the drop of a hat. You, Anthony Cairns, are nothing more than a lazy, apathetic individual who is simply not worthy of the extraordinary gift of life. You’ve all too frequently relied on pitiful attempts to justify this by convincing yourself that everyone else is no better than you, a slimy chancer, always on the lookout for a quick fix.”
God shakes his head slowly, tutting with disappointment, and I’m feeling increasingly sick, a deep penetrating sickness that racks my whole body.
“Apathy,” he continues, “has always been a prelude for chaos and destruction. From the big bang to the rise of Nazi Germany, apathy has been the one true constant. You had the power to do something with your life, but you chose not to.”
I clamp my hands over my ears as the sound of the hit man’s saw cuts through the flesh and bone of my wrist. I can’t believe what’s happening… “What did you expect me to do?” I try to shout out, but my voice sounds weak, almost broken. “The police were going to send me down!”
“An occupational hazard in your chosen career, as you well know. Surely not even somebody as stupid as you could possibly expect that your actions were going to result in a Knighthood or a Nobel Prize nomination. What has to happen now is that the gangsters have to send out a message to any other would-be grass, a message that betraying Paul Ferrier may not be in their best interests.”
I stand unmoving, gripped by a strange paralysis, as I watch with horror the inhuman spectacle before me. Only the comforting hand of God resting on my shoulder keeps me from total insanity, as the hit-man - his face pock marked and expressionless - continues his gruesome task. Soon my hands and feet are sawn off, my teeth crudely extracted with pliers, pieces of gum still clinging to them. Before my very eyes my corpse is mutilated beyond all recognition and the polythene sheeting becomes soaked in blood. Finally my severed limbs, teeth and various organs are sealed inside plastic bags before they’re wrapped in newspaper and dropped into ready addressed boxes. As the final piece of me - my heart - is wrapped up, I catch a brief glimpse of the headline on one of the assassin’s sheets of newspaper. It reads: “GANGSTER FERRIER TO FACE DRUG CHARGES.” Under the headline is a picture… a face staring out at me… the face of Paul Ferrier… tanned, with a short white beard. The man’s eyes lock with mine as he gazes towards me, emanating calm self assurance… appearing majestic… almost God-like.
God is no longer with me, his comforting arm a mere memory. The hit-man cleans everything away with practiced calm efficiency, as the tears roll down my cheeks. Left alone to contemplate the cruelty of the world I so recently inhabited, I realise it to be a cruelty I only ever helped perpetuate. An increasing sinking feeling of utter despair wells up inside me and I’m sinking deeper…