Sunday, August 19, 2012

Money for New Rope by Michael McCarthy

A desperate author with writer's block hires a strange man to inspire him by recounting surreal and disturbing visions; by Michael McCarthy

I replayed the words in my mind, for the millionth time.

'A mother and her three children have been found murdered, in a particularly bestial manner. A country wide search has been launched for the children's father.'

The newscaster signed off from the lead story, with a visible shudder.

It had, apparently, taken place in some small village on the south coast.

Surely I could make something out of this.

I shook my head, shocked at my behaviour.

Out of shame and despair, I placed an ad in a local rag. Shame, because I'd resorted to dredging the media for news on particularly gruesome deaths in the hope it would inspire my barren mind.

Despair, because I thought I'd never write anything half decent again.

The ad was, basically, asking for anyone who felt haunted or troubled - much like myself, that's how I had the idea - inviting them to call me to talk about it and maybe provide me with some inspiration for my writing.

Since my most recent book, about an ageing opera singer down on his luck, who's reduced to appearing in ever more tatty venues just to keep his head above water, I'd been labouring under a writer's block and well... desperate times call for drastic measures.

I taped all the calls and sifted through them. There were about twenty-five in all.

Some obvious cranks, perverts to be honest, incredibly depraved. I actually erased them without listening to them in their entirety, even my natural curiosity wouldn't allow me to keep them.

Then others, wailing about their horrendous childhoods, but that's been done to death.

The rest of the callers, I didn't know what they were on about, sobbing, whingeing, swearing and apologising. I couldn't use any of them.

Eventually I chose one, attracted by something in his voice as much as by what he had to say.

There was something almost mesmeric and seductive about his enunciation.

He gave his name as Yeats and spoke in a Scottish accent which, I'm no expert, I'd say hailed from Edinburgh.

We agreed an appointment.

One moment he wasn't there, the next he materialised in the doorway, seemingly from nowhere, of an office I'd borrowed from a solicitor friend. I chose it deliberately. It was actually a spare office and, by the look of it, long forgotten.

Big webs of dust clung to the corners. One of them, almost reaching the floor from the ceiling, had woven its way around a coat stand making it look like the skeletal leftovers of a meal.

An old wooden filing cabinet occupied one corner, and on the walls hung an array of certificates, their surfaces hidden under films of dirt.

I had placed a manual typewriter on the desk, a battered old Royal, actually, in a black leather case, apparently the type used by Hemingway and, together with an ashtray in the shape of an open hand which I had won in a short story competition many moons ago, and the general air of neglect, I thought the overall effect was old school writerly.

He looked at me expectantly, hopefully. I should have asked him in or at least stood up welcomingly but, frankly, I wanted to see him squirm.

The keen, pleading expression on his face made him look like the sort of person who had been picked on and bullied all his life.

He was like a human scaffolding, all angles and protuberances. His clothes, a shabby jet black suit and a creased white shirt with a buttoned down collar, hung loosely from his bony frame.

Stooped, his head bent, he almost cowered, waiting.

He didn't cough politely or 'Umm' or 'Aah', he just waited at the door, like at a start line, one foot in front of the other, knees cocked.

'Excuse me,' he mumbled finally, looking at the floor.

I sighed loudly, in mock exasperation. 'Can I help you?'

He said something into his hand, as though speaking into one of those microphones the Secret Service wear.

'Sorry. Who are you?' I thought that would cause him problems, having to announce his name.

He cleared his throat, rolled his bony shoulders and whispered, 'My name is Yeats. I called.'

'Pardon?'

'Yeats,' he repeated, louder.

'Yeats. Oh, OK. What can I do for you?'

He looked longingly at the empty chair in front of the desk.

I raised my eyebrows, gesturing to it.

He sprang forward and then slowly collapsed into it, like a string puppet, limbs sticking out awkwardly, but finally at rest. He had short, thin blonde hair on top of a long, angular, bone white face, with tiny dark eyes constantly darting from one point to another, as though seeking out the next danger.

We looked at each other. I made sure he looked away first.

'I'm answering your advertisement,' he murmured.

'Yes. I remember.' I leaned back in my chair, lording it over him. Whenever you encounter somebody worse off than yourself, I guess you just wallow in your apparent superiority. Well I do, anyway. 'Please go on.'

'OK. Right. I have these images,' he said, matter of factly.

'What do you mean, exactly?'

'I have images. They just appear, they stay a while and then they join the others.'

'What sort of images?'

'All sorts.'

'Well, can you give me an example?' I begged, sarcastically.

He looked down coyly. 'Your ad mentioned something about payment.'

I slid an envelope across the table. It cut a path through thick drifts of dust, like a sleigh cutting its way through packed snow.

Long, bony fingers snaked out and grabbed it. He perused its contents and, apparently satisfied, released a long sigh which, somehow, seemed to boost him.

'Shall I begin?' he asked, settling himself, his joints wrestling with each other until, finally, he felt comfortable. His new-found smugness unsettled me.

'That's what I'm paying you for,' I answered.

'There's a girl, a young woman. She's sitting in what looks like the middle of a park, in a large clearing.' He paused and cocked his head as though trying to remember some detail or savouring a particularly sweet memory.

'And?'

'She's leaning forward into a camera. She looks unsure, a bit worried. Then she smiles, reassured. You can tell it's in response to a gesture from somebody in front of her. The funny thing is, it looks as though she's buried up to her hips, awaiting some awful fate, but doesn't yet realise it. Or maybe it's just the way her skirt is fanned out around her.'

He looked at me as though waiting for some signal or even praise.

I put my hand over my mouth, as though stifling a yawn.

Unperturbed, he went on. 'She's rubbing her hands in circles on the dried out ground. It's so dry that her hands are raising little clouds of dust, like mini sandstorms over the sparse, yellowy brown grass. Behind her you can see a clock tower, through the skeletal trees, but there are no hands on the clock.'

He stopped abruptly and looked at me expectantly.

'Is that it?' I asked.

'Patience is a virtue. It's difficult to say whether she's flirting or even daydreaming. She's got an enigmatic expression on her face. But then the clock starts to chime, but we never learn how many times.' His voice dropped to a whisper.

He could have been an actor, the intensity of the imagery, his delivery and timing.

Suddenly he had a packet of cigarettes and a cheap disposable lighter in his bone white hands.

I hate smoking, the stench primarily, the lingering stench. I could imagine the nicotine staining the ceiling. To be honest, it wouldn't have made a lot of difference to this ceiling.

But you know what I mean. Just the thought of those nicotine loaded silky scarves winding themselves around me. But I didn't want to break the mood.

I watched him extract a cigarette and slowly place it in his mouth. He lit it and inhaled deeply. When he exhaled, the smoke blasted out, like a gas released from under intense pressure.

'Do you have any other images?' I asked him.

'Yes. Lots. I collect them.'

'Perhaps you'd like to reveal another one?' I drawled.

In response he sucked greedily on his cigarette, clearly at ease.

'The latest one is a group of heads,' he began slowly, sounding more like some big shot actor on a chat show promoting his latest sure fire success film. 'They're shrunken heads, brown and wrinkled, and they're spinning. Their hair, which is dull, colourless, dry and brittle, is pulled tight and attached to ropes which in turn are attached to something else. What I don't know.'

He smiled and his small, blood red tongue caressed his perfectly white upper teeth.

'Where are these heads?' I asked.

'In here.' He tapped his forehead.

His fingernails were unusually long for a man - well, any man of my acquaintance - and well manicured.

'I know they're in there. Tell me about their surroundings.'

'Oh, yes.' He tittered. 'Sometimes, I imagine myself looking up a flight of stairs, and there they are, at the top, rotating slowly in near darkness.' He stroked his lips with a talon-like forefinger.

'And other times?' I asked.

'Well, there's a man, standing at a kitchen sink, looking out of a dirty old window. There are no curtains. It's dark outside and there's a naked light bulb swinging above his head. The man is sobbing, his shoulders heaving, tears spilling down his unshaven face. His hair is black and greasy and sticking up all over the place, and he's wearing a vest. You know, a singlet?' He looked at me cockily.

'Yes. I know what a singlet is.'

'Shall I go on?'

I nodded.

'Actually, he looks like a young Robert Mitchum.' He gave me that look again, as if I didn't know who Robert Mitchum was.

'Go on.'

'The singlet is dirty and creased and full of holes. He can see his reflection in the grimy glass, the light bulb swinging above his head and, behind him, a bit unclear, but all the more effective for it, the heads spinning.'

'Then what happens?'

'Nothing. The man has a cigarette, cupped in his fist, and a thin wisp of smoke is trailing through his knuckles towards the window.'

'And then?'

'You're the writer.'

I frowned.

'OK. Nothing. The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand, it makes a wet sound. And he just turns and stares transfixed at the heads, sobbing, the tears running down his face, forced into rivulets by his stubble.'

An impossibly long length of ash had formed perfectly at the end of his cigarette. He looked at the tube of ash and a faraway look came, momentarily, to his eyes.

He stopped abruptly and, ash still intact, dropped his now extinguished cigarette into the ashtray. The ash stayed in one piece, like a bone.

'I found that second one more...' I paused, searching for the right word. 'Graphic.'

'You were meant to.'

I wanted to deflate him. He was getting too big for his boots. Which, by the way, were ankle high, black and immaculately shined. In glaring contrast to the rest of his sloppy garb.

He was clearly enjoying himself.

'Thank you Mr. Yeats. It's been interesting listening to you. Just one thing.'

He leaned forward, eagerly.

'You don't seem troubled by these images, which is what I was looking for.'

His face registered disappointment.

'I'm not. But, you haven't heard all of them. I'm sure I can call up a troubled soul or two.' He closed his eyes. It seemed as though he was consulting his internal filing system. 'Would you like to hear some more?'

'No thanks. I've got other fish to fry,' I said, dismissively.

'Well are you going to use them?'

'I prefer the second one. But I'm not sure this is exactly what I'm after.'

'I have many, many more.'

That sounded like a sales pitch.

'How many more?'

'I don't know. I don't write them down or count them.'

'You should.'

'Why?'

'Maybe you could expand on them, form stories. I think you're a natural story teller.'

'I sell them. You'd be surprised how many I've sold. You'd be even more surprised if I told you who'd bought them. I'm talking household names.' He was beaming.

'Is that how you make your living?'

'How else?'

'Do these images come to you at any particular time? In your dreams, or after alcohol or drugs?'

He laughed. His stick like frame shook, almost rattled and he emitted a high pitched whinny like a horse. I thought he would fall apart.

I wrote that down quickly. I had been lazily doodling while listening to him, but my sudden urgency must have alerted him.

His laughter broke off in mid neigh. 'What are you doing?' His voice had gained an imperious edge, like an interrogator delighting in his power over a captive.

'Nothing,' I answered, defensively.

'What were you writing?'

'Nothing.' I carried on scribbling.

'What did you just write?' he demanded.

'I believe we've finished our business Mr. Yeats.' Our eyes met. I felt like I was looking into two dark, deep, empty sockets. I broke contact first. I had no choice.

'That is mine,' he hissed.

'What is?'

'Whatever you wrote.'

He lit another cigarette. His index finger jabbed in the direction of my pad.

'What did you write?' He was calm and in control.

I knew he wouldn't give up. I summoned up what I hoped was a mixture of confidence and disdain.

'I think you'd better go. Thank you for coming.'

He just stared back, silently, insolently.

'Look. I have other...'

'I'm not going anywhere. Not until I get what's mine.' He held his hand out.

It was rock steady.

'You want what I've written on this pad?'

He nodded.

'Why?'

'Because it's about me. You've stolen something from me. I want it.'

'If I have written something about you. I said if, mind, then it was a personal observation.'

'Exactly. Now give.' He leaned forward, as though he were preparing to pounce.

'No.' I answered.

'This is business.'

'Look, get lost.' I could feel stirrings of foreboding in my guts and I really wanted to bring this to a prompt end.

'Give.' He blew an impossibly large funnel of smoke over my head, where I could imagine it slowly falling on to me like acid rain.

He folded back into his chair, like something returning to its lair.

'Like I said, it's an observation.' I wondered if he noticed the slight tremor in my voice.

'What did you write?'

I wondered if I could take him. I guessed he was in his early thirties. I had a few on him. But, despite my alcohol intake, I was solid, well sort of, and fit. I swam or cycled every day.

An image of him lying on his back, floundering helplessly and unable to retain his balance, came into my head, and my mouth creased into a faint smile.

'Why are you smiling? What are you thinking?'

'Are you going to charge me for my thoughts?' I asked, blusteringly.

'I might,' he replied after a pause.

This was getting unpleasant.

Then his hand snaked out lazily and grabbed my pad. The movement was deceptive, almost hypnotic in its contemptuous assumption of superiority.

I remained in my chair.

He struggled to make out my hieroglyphics. Eventually he got it.

I had written, 'Stick like form, horsey laugh, shakes, hope he doesn't fall apart.'

'That's not very funny,' he said, although he had a strange smile on his face.

'You just don't have a sense of humour,' I replied, nervously.

'Not very funny at all actually and, accordingly, expensive.'

'Look, what the hell is it you want?' He'd got me rattled.

He looked at me with detachment. As though he were examining a stool sample in a laboratory.

After a few long seconds, during which I began to squirm, he shook his head slowly from side to side. 'Tut, tut, tut. I think I've got all I need thank you.'

Slowly, he stood up, unfolding himself, until he was towering above me.

'I wanted to add to my collection, as a matter of a fact.' He bent forward and placed my pad carefully on the typewriter. 'They don't usually react as stubbornly as you.'

'Did you think you could intimidate me?'

He moved to the door and then, just before leaving, he turned to face me and after looking at me for a long few seconds, as though he was trying to identify what I was, said in a sing song voice, 'You? You're just research.'

Eventually, a few weeks later, more details of the murders of the mother and her children were revealed on the web.

They had been decapitated and their heads had been discovered, shrunken and hanging from ropes from the upstairs banister in a long forgotten, tumble down wooden house on the edge of the village. The estimated date of the murders was given as shortly before my encounter with Yeats.

The house, almost submerged under a tidal wave of wild growing foliage, had been long forgotten and would probably have remained so, unless two young boys, taking up a dare, hadn't found their way in and been confronted by the very thing they most feared, but least expected.

A man, later identified as the husband and father, was discovered, kneeling underneath the heads, sobbing uncontrollably.

The police could not get any sense out of him and the last I heard, he had been carted off to a mental hospital, where he remains to this day, still and silent, lying on a bed, as though suffering from locked-in syndrome.

He is not, however, considered to be a suspect.

I tried to forget about Yeats, and nearly succeeded, but he was always there, lurking on the edge of my subconscious, tormenting me, like a fatal diagnosis.

At first, I thought about writing about him and his images, but his tales had such a ring of truth about them, and the apparent fates of the cast list troubled me. I feared, if I attempted to exploit our brief acquaintanceship, that I may end up as a member of that cast.

My conscience was also pricking me, so I decided to call the police, anonymously, and give them all I knew about Yeats, which wasn't much. But to be honest, I also wanted to share the burden with someone. However, I realised that would only provoke him and maybe set him after me.

Anyway, I didn't think anybody could catch or stop him.

Who knew what he'd been responsible for over the years?

It dawned on me that he was some kind of serial killer, but one who did not confine himself to one type of victim or method of despatch, but just slaughtered randomly as and when he felt like it. And, as if that wasn't enough, one who seemed to gain financially through the immortalisation of his exploits.

He didn't need a reason to come after me.

In fact, my fate had been sealed when he read my advert. He'd been toying with me since then.

I began spotting him in my usual haunts. At first, I thought it was my feverish imagination going into overdrive. I caught lightning glimpses of him in the supermarket as he flitted from aisle to aisle, or at the swimming pool as he ghosted through the locker room or even down at the local pub where I saw him fleetingly out of the corner of my eye, before he disappeared through a door or behind a group of drinkers.

Tantalising flashes of him, but enough for me to know it was him and he was after me.

By then, of course, it no longer mattered if I wrote about him or called the police. So I've started my book, and it's pouring out of me. Writer's block. What writer's block?

Whether he lets me finish it is in the lap of the gods.

I'm not going to sit here waiting for him. I'm making plans to get far away, as far away as possible. If there is such a place.

I'm not going to call the police. They'd never believe it.



I turned on the TV news a few days ago and caught the tail end of a report, about how the village was coming to terms with what had happened. I was just about to change channels, as the reporter wrapped up the programme, when I saw Yeats.

He was clearly visible in a corner of the screen, leaning languorously on the bonnet of a police car, smoking a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, blew a smoke ring and, smiling through it, seemed to be transported to a happier place.

A place, I feared, I was bound for.

12 comments:

  1. Top Class stuff.

    Well done Mike.

    Regards Ray

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  2. Wow! Another great story!
    Mike you are truly an outstanding writer!

    best regards
    Dieter

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  3. An unusual crazy story with a remarkable sense of black humor. Fine traces of psychologie and philosophy. Could happen in any form everyday with everybody. We should always be sensitive as ragards our vis-à-vis. I loved the story with a smile. Thanks to the author.
    Norbert

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  4. Gabi: Once again Michael McCarthy proves himself to be a master in describing unusual characters and unusual situations in a very precise and vivid manner. I really felt growing uneasiness when reading the story. There were signs of evil right from the beginning: Money for new
    r o p e ! M e s m e r i c enunciation! Human
    s c a f f o l d i n g !
    The tension increases from disgust to dread, a dread that pumps life into the frustrated writer and enables him to overcome his block, and on the other hand paralyzes him so much that he seems to accept the imminent danger of getting murdered. Why does he not inform the police? Because he fears shame more than death?

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  5. This was simply amazing. Genuinely creepy, and that is difficult to do...

    Ziyad Hayatli

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    Replies
    1. thank you very much Ziyad

      michael mccarthy

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  6. Good stuff! Love the dialogue with Yeats...it really set up a creepy mood...

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    Replies
    1. thank you very much!
      michael mccarthy

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  7. Didn't anticipate the direction the story would take , where roles were reversed and the subject became the story teller and 'master' became minnow. I was so gripped I had almost forgotten where the story opened with the police report of the mass murder. Fab. Teresa

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  8. Good stuff, Michael. I finally got around to looking up the first and second chapters (episodes?) of Yeats, and ever so glad I did.

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  9. thanks a lot Jim

    regards

    Mike

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  10. I've left my comments for the whole story on pts 2-3.

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