The knocking woke Val from her familiar dreams of waves and lights. She blinked a few times, before the scene took shape. Queeny howled and jumped on the spot, hackles raised, her remaining teeth bared. She peered through gluey eyes at the clock on the far wall. Two in the morning. Who was knocking on her door at two in the bastard morning? Kate, Maybe? No. She and Kate had exchanged barely two words in over a year now. Police? No. Val knew a copper’s knock when she heard it. This knocking was quiet, restrained even, but with a quiet insistence that suggested that the visitor was prepared to rap at the wood until either it or their knuckles had been worn away.
She levered herself off the sofa, manoeuvred around empty gin bottles and peered up the hallway. Through the glass in the front door she could see a black shape mosaicked against the street lights. Instinctively, she looked over to Daniel’s armchair for reassurance, but there was only Queeny, gummy and half-blind. She shuffled up the hallway, fastened the safety chain and opened the door.
A man shivered outside. He hunched against the drizzle, one arm crossed over his stomach. The rain plastered his shirt to his body, cruelly exposing his thinness. The glow of the street lamps hollowed out his eyes and gave an odd, diseased tone to his skin.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked from behind the door, leaning down to shush Queeny.
‘You Missus Stutterman?’ The man’s voice was thick and phlegmy.
‘Miss Stutterman, and who wants to know?’
‘Can I come in?’
Val’s mouth moved silently, until she found her voice.
‘I don’t bloody think so. Don’t know you from Adam. What you after?’
‘Please,’ said the man. He leant heavily against the door frame. His hand, covered in blood, reached up. ‘Let me in.’
She screamed and slammed the door in his face. Pressing her weight against the wood she struggled to control her breathing. The knocking started again.
‘Miss Stutterman? You there?’
Her conscience hissed at her; she had shut a man, wounded and in need of help, out of her house. Heart in mouth, she removed the safety chain and opened the door. The man’s legs had given way and he knelt on the ground in front of her.
‘I’m sorry pet, I’m so sorry,’ said Val. ‘I saw the blood and got scared. I didn’t know. I am so sorry. Get inside. I’ll call ambulance.’
She helped him to his feet and offered him her shoulder. He was light. Under the weak bulb she could see him more clearly. He was young; about the same age as Daniel. His eyes were the colour of rainwater and small blue veins ran like cracks through his white skin. She tried to stop her eyes wandering down to the red mess beneath his ribcage. She led him through to the kitchen and sat him down, handing him a towel to press to his wound.
‘What in the hell happened to you?’ she asked as she dialled emergency services.
‘I fell,’ said the man, resting his head against the table, the white towel now crimson. ‘I think I landed on… I dunno… a fence post or something.’
‘Bugger me, but it don’t half look nasty.’
‘Aye,’ said the man. ‘It killed me.’
Val didn’t move. She became very aware of the faint draught from the back door and the weight of her tongue in her mouth. The clock ticked and tocked; helpfully dividing the endless silence into units of time. The phone pressed to her ear rang and rang. Nobody picked up. All that was left of the world was Val, her half blind dog and the dead man. She forced herself to laugh and the world lurched back into life.
‘Don’t be such a drama queen. You’ll be fine,’ she said. She couldn’t manage the smile to back this up and so turned away from him. ‘Eee, What’s wrong with these lot? Emergency services my arse. If they don’t pick up soon, you really will be dead.’
Queeny padded over and lapped at the blood puddling on the floor. Val pushed her away with a foot.
‘Nobody’ll come, Miss Stutterman,’ said the man. ‘They didn’t before.’
‘How exactly do you know my name?’ asked Val. She wanted to turn round and confront him, but her body was too heavy. The phone continued to ring.
‘Daniel told me about you.’
‘My Daniel is dead.’
‘Aye, he told us,’ the man scratched behind Queeny’s ears. ‘Told us about you an’ all. Said you were a good sort. Bit arsey, but a good sort. Said that anyone willing to put up with his singing must have the patience of a saint.’
She span round and hurled the phone handset at him. It hit his shoulder and fell to the floor. The ringing continued, further away than ever. He looked slowly from her, to it and back again.
‘Get out,’ she said. ‘Get the fuck out of my house.’
‘Y-you kicking me out?’
‘Too bloody right. I don’t know what the hell you think you’re playing at, but I’m not having it. This your idea of a joke? You think it’s funny?’
‘Sorry,’ said the man. ‘I didn’t… I didn’t mean no offence.’
‘You’re sorry?’ she said. ‘I’m bloody sorry for letting you in here in the first place. Sling your hook, before I call the police.’
She picked up the still ringing phone.
‘You can’t throw me out,’ said the man.
‘Just you watch me, mate.’
‘But I’m dying.’
‘Shove it. You’re no more dying than I am. You’ve got one of your arsehole mates to dress you up or something. Thought you’d have a right laugh, didn’t you? Well I’m not having it. Fuck off.’
She grabbed the man by his collar and tried to lift him to his feet. He slid downwards, crumpling on the ground. She tried to haul him up by his waist. Her hands slipped on the blood and plunged into the wound. He screamed.
Val stumbled backwards in shock and fell on the floor. Her stained fingers rose to her face. They had been inside him. She had felt the heat, felt things move. She looked back to the man writhing on the floor, tears streaming down his face.
‘Oh, God,’ she stammered, scrambling to her feet. ‘Oh, Jesus wept. Please… please don’t die. I’m sorry. Don’t die. Hold on. Wait right there. I’ll knock up the neighbours. Their phone’s got to be working.’
‘Wait,’ said the young man, through clenched teeth. ‘Please, wait.’
‘I’m so sorry love, but my phones knackered. I’ll be gone a moment, I swear.’
‘They won’t hear you,’ said the young man, curling into a quarter-circle.
Val went to his side. His brow was shiny with sweat and his eyes were rolled back so that only the whites were visible. His lips moved noiselessly and his hands pawed the empty air. She stroked the side of his head, shocked by the coldness.
‘I know you don’t want to be left alone,’ she said. ‘But I’ve got to get help. Next door will be able to ring for an ambulance. You’ll be alright pet, you’ll see.’
His hand gripped her wrist, hot blood contrasting with cold flesh.
‘You can call them, but they won’t come,’ he said. ‘You can shout and shout until your lungs burst, but nobody’ll answer. It’s just like the first time.’
‘The first time?’
‘The first time I died,’ he said. A fresh burst of pain spasmed through his body, curling him tighter. The hand that gripped Val’s wrist let go. She paused, rubbed where his nails had broken her skin, then leant forward to embrace him. She cradled his head in her arms, stroking his wet hair and whispering empty reassurances until the pain began to ebb.
‘What happened to you?’ she asked.
‘I was so angry with her,’ said the young man. ‘Me girlfriend, that is. Not that she cared. She’d have already been on the plane by that time with… with…’ He paused and looked at her. ‘Funny. I can remember hating him… but can’t for the life of me remember his name. I left the house. Told meself that I was going to keep walking until I passed out and woke up some place new. I went right through through town, up to the old quarry. You know it?’
‘Yeah well, it was dark,’ said the young man, ‘and I’d had a bit to drink and I fell. At least I think I did. One minute I was walking along thinking, the next I’m staring at the stars. I tried to get up, but there was something pinning me to the ground. I looked down and there was this huge piece of wood sticking out of my stomach. I touched it. It was weird, kinda like I expected to feel my fingers pressing against it. It was growing out of me, parts of me were all over it, but it wasn’t me. You get me?’
He coughed with such ferocity that Val thought his lungs might come out of his mouth. When he looked back at her, his lips were black.
‘You poor thing,’ she said. The words small and unconvincing, but all she could think of.
‘It didn’t hurt,’ said the man eventually. ‘At first anyway. I kept trying to stand. But then it grew. It was like there was something inside me, underneath me skin, trying to force its way through me ribs. And it was noisy. I don’t know if I can explain, but there was so much noise, just this… it wasn’t even a scream. A scream would be something, but this was nothing and it was so bloody loud.’
‘How long were you there?’ Val asked stroking his head.
‘Dunno,’ said the man. ‘It felt like forever. I was yelling as loud as I could, to make myself heard over the noise. But nobody came. Sometimes I lost the words, just started howling. I yelled for hours or days or weeks, but there was no one there to hear me.’
Val said nothing. She imagined him lying there, pinned in place by the stake through his stomach. Animals watched from the undergrowth, waiting . He screamed for help, but nobody heard him. They couldn’t, because the wind picked up and threw his voice away from the shore that seemed to be getting further away every second. His legs kicked weakly and sea water fell down his gullet. On the horizon, torches and searchlights twinkled like far off stars. She thought she could hear voices, but that could have been the wind or the waves or the thunderous silence that grew somewhere in the darkness behind his eyes.
The young man’s nails dug into her wrist and she snapped back to reality. His head had slumped in an awkward angle and she could see his lips moving. She moved his head into the crook of her arms and realised that he was singing. The words slipped out of his mouth, half-formed and barely audible, but the skeleton of a song was there. She pushed his hair back and his eyes flickered open, taking a few moments to focus on her.
‘What were you singing?’
‘It was a song me mam used to sing for me when I were little,’ said the man. ‘But I can’t…. I don’t remember the words. Could you sing it for me?’
‘I don’t know the words either.’
‘It doesn’t matter. I just want to hear a voice.’
Val closed her eyes and tried to think of a song. Nothing came to her, but, feeling she had to do something, she opened her mouth and a tuneless dirge fell out. She paused briefly, embarrassed by the sound of her own voice, but the man squeezed her arm and she continued. Slowly the song took form, the aimless notes merging into a half-remembered melody. Words began to appear; silly, stupid ones about kissing in a bus stop in the rain. When she had finished, she wiped her cheek, surprised by the tears.
‘That was nice,’ he said. ‘What was it?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Val, staring out her kitchen window. ‘Danny used to sing it when he was getting ready to go out. His dad taught him it, I think. Drove me up the bastard wall. Always the same bloody song, night after night.’
‘No, it wasn’t,’ said the man.
‘Oh yes it was,’ she sniffed. ‘Trust me mate, you have no idea. I had it every night for eight years.’
‘No, it wasn’t,’ insisted the man. He coughed again, more blood. ‘Every time he sang it, it was different… he was different… you were different. That’s what I miss, I reckon. There’s no new voices, you see… out there. Once the noise stops, all you get is what you’ve already heard, again and again and again. There’s no new ways of singing.’
Val sat silently, the ticking of the clock and the dripping of blood a metronome for her thoughts.
‘He misses you,’ said the man after a long minute. Val continued stroking his hair. The room in front of her blurred and she wept.
‘Then why isn’t he here instead of you?’ she managed at last. ‘I don’t know you, I don’t need you. I need him; I need to say goodbye.’
‘But you’ve said goodbye,’ said the man. ‘You’ve done nothing but say goodbye for the past two years. And he’s heard it. He heard it while you were still stood on the shore, he’s heard it every day since he left and if he were here now he’d just hear it again. He’s dead. All he’ll ever have is what he had. You’re not. You should be singing songs you don’t know.’
Val sniffed and stared out of the window.
‘What about you?’ she asked after a while.
‘I never got a goodbye.’ He attempted a shrug.
Val nodded. On the floor beside her the phone continued to ring.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘Anthony. They used to called us Anthony.’
* * *
Hours passed. The birds sang and the sky turned bruised yellow. Anthony’s breath rattled in his throat and he died for the second time. Val closed his eyes, brushed the hair out of his face and laid him on the floor. She lay down beside him, her forehead touching his, and slept.
* * *
‘Hello, 999. Could you please state the nature of the emergency?’
Val’s eyes flickered open. Slowly the kitchen came into focus. Queeny scratched at the door, asking to be let out, the clock ticked and tocked on the far wall and a disembodied voice crackled from the phone handset. Blurrily, she picked it up.
‘Hello, madam. This is the emergency services. Could you please state the nature of your emergency?’
Val lowered the phone and surveyed the kitchen: It was a mess. The dishes needed doing, the floor needed mopped and she’d been using eggcups as ashtrays. There was no body. She looked down at her clothes. They were unflattering, crumpled and dirty from having been slept in. There was no blood. She inspected her hands. They were clean. The crackling voice from the handset interrupted her thoughts; she blinked at it a few times and hung up.
She got up, wandered from room to room for a few minutes, slumped in her armchair. There was something different, a change in the atmosphere of the house: the air was cleaner and her lungs breathed easier. Maybe she should go to bed. No, there was no time. The house was a state, Queeny needed walking and she really should ring Kate and catch up on the crack. Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead. She got up, grabbed a pencil and paper and started making a list of all the things she had to do. She sang quietly to herself as she went.
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