Read Behindlings Online

Authors: Nicola Barker

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General




For dear Charles Edward Johnson, who slammed his way out of that damn velvet factory – smashing the glass door behind him – never, ever to look back again. And for his beautiful, blue-eyed wife, Betty, who, at the grand old age of 84, discovered that the pylons could love one another.



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Wesley glanced behind him. Two people followed, but at a sensible distance. The first was familiar; an old man whose name he knew to be Murdoch. Murdoch, Wesley remembered, had been robust, once. He’d been grizzled.
Frosty. A magnificent, clambering, prickly pear of a man. He’d been firm and strong and resolute.
a man-tree, if ever there was one.

Recently, however, Murdoch’s body had begun to curve, to arc (they all called him Doc, although he hadn’t even seen the inside of a hospital until his sixty-third year –he was a home birth, people invariably were, back then –when necessity dictated that a small reddish hillock, a mole, on his right shoulder blade, should be surgically removed. He was a scaffolder, by trade).

But the curving was nothing medical. It went deeper. And along with this –initially –almost imperceptible transmutation (Wesley noticed details. It paid him to notice), Doc’s colours had begun to alter: his bodily palette had changed from its habitual clean, crisp white, to a painfully tender pink, to a pale, dry, crusty yellow. Up close he smelt all sweet and sickly, like a wilting honeysuckle tendril.

Now, when Murdoch walked, it was as though he carried something huge and weighty within him, something painful, thudding, wearysome. His
It was too full and heavy. Stuffed but tremulous, like a chicken’s liver.

Wesley felt hungry. I could devour him, he thought, smirking. But he knew –must I know everything? He wondered briefly, the smirk dissipating –that the thing Murdoch carried so heavily in his heart was grief. Yes, grief. And possibly, just
possibly, a tiny, shrew-footed, virtually inaudible, pitter-patter of rage.

Unwieldy burdens. Wesley understood. He’d carried them himself, and badly. But Murdoch was strong, and he supported them fearlessly, he slung them –like an ancient holdall with rotted handles –firmly and evenly between his two old arms.

Doc was accompanied by a little dog. A sandy-coloured terrier. A plucky cur, a legendary ratter. The dog was called Dennis. Wesley knew Dennis well; the stout push of his legs, the familiar bump of his vertebrae, the inquisitive angle of his ears, his horribly intrusive nose, his fur wiry as poor quality pot scourers.

He remembered, once, staring briefly into Dennis’s eyes and seeing a wild loop of fleas tightening in a crazy insect lassoo around the bridge of his snout.
He was a good dog.

And the other person? The second follower? A woman. Wesley peered. She rang no bells. She wasn’t familiar. She did not compute. Young. She seemed young and gangly, fine but big-boned with a delicate, tufty, parsnip-shaped head. Not unattractive, either. She was plain but wholesome, like a small, newly dug, recently scrubbed tuber. She was dressed like a boy.

Wesley turned, smiling grimly to himself. They were a bane. Yes. A bane. But only so long as they followed him (and this had to be some kind of compensation), only so long as they stalked, surveyed, trailed, pursued, could he truly depend upon his own safety. They were his witnesses.

But they were his witnesses. And Wesley knew (better, perhaps, than anybody) that he was a man who desperately needed watching.

It was too damn early. Wesley paused for a moment in front of a bakery and glanced through the window. They’d just opened. He drew close to the glass and touched it. He left a perfect thumbprint. I’m leaving traces, he thought.

He stared down into a tray of speciality doughnuts. They were not the round kind, or the ring. They were not creamy zeppelins, apple-filled or cinnamon-sugar-rolled. No. They were shaped like people. Like gingerbread men.

In Canvey –because that was where he found himself on this
teeth-achingly cold, brutally bracing January morning –their wild and resolutely wool-infested island history was intertwined with the stamp of spicy ginger, with sweetness, with men (as late as the eighteenth century this precarious domain’s unhealthy air –the interminable
dampness –
brought the fever like an unwelcome wedding gift to raw hordes of eager new brides.

Concealed in the perilous but stealthy fog which constantly tiptoed around this fractured isle like a ravenously phantas-magorical winter mink, slipping, unobserved, between plump and tender post-nuptial lips, slinking, unapprehended, through the spirited flair of passionate nostrils.

Making itself at home. Rearranging the furniture. Infiltrating. Infecting. Conquering. Killing. In those days one stout and ruddy shepherd could take ten wives and think nothing of it. Some, it was rumoured, took as many as thirty-five).

Wesley knew his stuff. Or enough stuff, at least –he told himself tiredly –to be getting on with.

The doughnuts he took to be a local peculiarity. He gazed at them. He was hungry. Each doughnut had an ugly red scar where its jam had been pumped in the sweetest transfusion. Generally, the wound was located under the right armpit. Sometimes, but rarely, in the chest.

He glanced up. Instinct. A shop assistant watched him. She was tying on her apron but staring at his hand, her dark eyes, her clean mouth, battling instinctively against a wide tide of revulsion. On his right hand Wesley had only a thumb, and a mass of shiny scar tissue which glimmered a bright bluey-violet in the cold.

He removed his hand and tucked it into his pocket. But the assistant didn’t stop her staring. ‘I know you,’ she said, the light of recognition gradually dawning. He could see her lips moving. ‘I

Wesley stared at her, blankly, then turned and walked on.

The old man reached the bakery seconds later. Murdoch stopped in Wesley’s tracks and peered through the window. He put his thumb where Wesley’s thumb had been. His old eyes fed upon the trays of sweet iced fingers, sticky currant buns, cold bread pudding.

The small dog sat at his heels. Doc looked down at the dog,
fondly, and then up into the face of the shop assistant. Her expression was no longer hostile, but pitying. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her brown eyes suddenly unconscionably round and tender. The old man nodded, frowned, paused, blinked, nodded again, then hurried swiftly onwards.

The young woman wore baggy jeans, a pale blue sweatshirt, a quilted grey Parka and a solid pair of flat, brown walking shoes. Her hair was cropped. Like the old man before her, she carefully placed her thumb where Wesley’s thumb had been. The assistant was standing behind her counter now, arranging french sticks into a wicker display basket. She didn’t appear to notice her.

The girl –Josephine –went into the shop.

‘I’ll have a doughnut,’ she said, raising her soft voice over the sound of the door bell jangling, then added, ‘No. Two. I’ll have two. Thank you.’

She took a wallet out of her pocket. She opened it. She glanced over her shoulder. She was plainly in a hurry.

‘You did my smear,’ the assistant smiled, hastily brushing sugar from her fingers, passing over the doughnuts and then punching the appropriate three keys on the till. ‘Remember?’

‘Did I?’ Jo clutched the doughnuts to her chest. For some reason she’d believed herself quite invisible. A wisp. A shade. A wraith.

‘Yes. Southend Hospital. I was
it. I actually have –if you don’t mind my saying so –I actually have an unusually tight…’ she lowered her voice to only a whisper, ‘an unusually tight

Josephine –having leaned forward a fraction to catch what the assistant was saying –nodded sympathetically as she handed over her money.

‘I understand,’ she whispered back, ‘I understand
’ The assistant smiled, relieved.

‘My GP was absolutely bloody useless,’ she continued, taking the money, ‘so I demanded a referral to Southend after I heard you on the radio talking about your campaign for environmental sanitary products…’

pollution,’ Jo intervened, automatically, ‘a dangerous by-product of the chlorine-bleaching process…’ As she spoke, she craned her neck slightly to try and peer down
the road a way. From where she was standing, Wesley was well out of her range already, but Doc… Doc…

‘Unfortunately, some women are chronically allergic,’ she continued, doggedly, ‘and it can play total havoc with coastal marine… uh… coastal marine…’

Had Doc just turned left or right? Or was it…? Hang on. There was a van, a dirty white van… The van pulled off.

Now there was a stupid bus shelter in the way. She blinked.
Was that fog? It suddenly seemed foggy. Or was it just her eyes? She usually wore glasses. Short-sighted. But she’d gone and sat on them, stupidly, first thing this morning, in her hurry. Needed sticky tape to… needed… early this morning. She’d been up since two-thirty. A full… she glanced down at her watch, squinting slightly… a full five and a half hours already.

Jo sighed, frustratedly, then slowly turned back around to face the counter again, her expression blank. Three long seconds ticked by. ‘Oh… uh, sorry… coastal marine
’ she concluded, then smiled distractedly.

‘That’s it,’ the assistant nodded, ‘
pollution. I remember now. And you were great.’

‘Well thank you.’

Jo’s money tinkled into the appropriate compartments. Fifty. Ten. Two. She took a small step backwards.

‘And I know this might sound a little bit peculiar,’ the assistant continued, plainly undeterred by Jo’s blatant inattentiveness, ‘but you actually have a real…’ she paused, thoughtfully, ‘a real

Jo inhaled, but not –she hoped –impatiently, ‘It’s only a system. Everything depends upon identifying the precise angle of the womb…’ she flapped her free hand around in the air (a furiously migrating Italian finch, caught in the cruel swathes of a huntsman’s netting) in order to try and demonstrate, ‘and then the rest is all just basic common sense, really. Your GP should get hold of my pamphlet. It’s available free from the Health Authority. Tell him to send off for it.’

She smiled brightly and turned to leave. Jesus Christ, she was thinking, how absolutely fucking
To be caught out. Like this. And
of all places.

The assistant, for her part, smiled back at Jo, nodded twice, perfectly amiably, then slammed the till shut. Nothing –at least superficially –out of the ordinary there. But as the coins in their compartments shifted and jangled in a brief yet acrimonious base-metal symphony, Jo could’ve sworn she heard something. Something else. Something beyond. Something
Three words. Half-muttered. Virtually inaudible over the surrounding clatter.

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