Friday, December 7, 2012

The Old Man and the Dead Thing By Natalie Thake

George finds the corpse of an unidentifiable animal in his parsnip patch, in Natalie Thake's light-hearted horror.

George Fletcher leaned against his rickety shed and surveyed his crop of parsnips in fury. Though his eyesight was clouded by cataracts, he'd instantaneously recognised that a disturbance had taken place.

"Bloody kids," he muttered, his breath condensing in the cold spring air. Since the wind played havoc with the attempts of his brittle fingers to roll cigarettes out in the open, he'd constructed a half a dozen of them prior to leaving the house. Now he retrieved one from his tobacco tin and lit it with his old Zippo.

Seething at the perceived scene of devastation at the centre of this miniscule scrap of land, he thought to himself, maybe it was that git in the next patch? He'd seen the way this recent patron of the allotments had been eyeing his prize parsnips. George would not have put it past the novice to jealously trample through them in an act of vandalism.

Drawing on the tight, filterless cigarette - his tenth that day, though it was early - he looked around for signs of tracks that might give him some clue as to which direction the trespasser had retreated. It had been raining a great deal these past few weeks, and so it would have been impossible not to have left some indentation in the soft earth. George reckoned he'd be able to distinguish between the lengthy Wellington prints of his neighbour and the small, overly embellished soles of the ludicrously expensive trainers bestowed on ruffians by their indulgent parents. As he circled his designated patch, however, George saw no sign that an invading presence had passed through. The disturbance seemed to be in the centre of the parsnip bed, and so he stepped gingerly through the uninjured stalks to ascertain how much of his haul was beyond saving. Joyce, his wife of sixty years, was an excellent cook, and he didn't want to miss out on too many portions of her delectable honey-glazed parsnips if it could possibly be helped.

What had started out as a drizzle of rain was falling harder now, saturating George's hair and running down the lenses of his bifocals. Joyce always told him he'd catch pneumonia from exposure to the elements, but he would scoff at her concern and dismissively proclaim that contracting a virus had sod-all to do with damp clothing. Besides, he would think, if I didn't come here when it rained, I'd hardly be here at all. The press bleated about the onset of global warming, but over his 82 years on this earth he'd noticed no perceptible decrease in the precipitation that Great Britain was subjected to.

Something foreign was in the middle of the vegetation, obscured from view by greenery. Some little twat's lobbed their football right in my veg, was his first thought. George always grumbled about the children who played ball games in the streets, conveniently neglecting to remember that he had kicked a ball around this same neighbourhood many a time in his youth. He also complained at length about youngsters being stuck indoors playing video games, but failed to see the contradiction.

Whatever was amid the parsnips, it was certainly not a football. George blinked away the stinging raindrops as he stared in bemusement at the interloper before him. His cigarette, now damp and darkened by tar, went out in his hand and he did not bother to re-light it. Instead he flicked it aside, though under normal circumstances he abhorred littering. Since taking up smoking at fourteen he had been in the habit of saving his dog-ends in a leather pouch before discarding them in the household waste. He pulled his gardening gloves from the back pocket of his ancient patched corduroys. Donning the gloves, he knelt slowly, joints cracking in protest, and parted the injured leaves.

Upon the sods of earth lay the fresh corpse of some sort of creature.

"Bugger me sideways," exclaimed George.

He'd never seen the like. It was perhaps twelve inches in length - a pale, hairless, grub-like being. The moist flesh was grey, and a pungent smell, like over-ripe fruit, rose from it. There were no visible appendages, but in the centre of the upward-turned side was what could have been interpreted as a face. An open slit was presumably a mouth, and two narrower slits appeared to be closed eyes.

George stared at this perplexing sight for some time, before struggling back to his feet and prodding it gently with the toe of one of his work boots. Much to his relief, it did not display any visible sign of life.

George made the sign of the cross, for he was somewhat unnerved. However, he gathered his faculties, shaking off the feeling of consternation. After all, as a young man, had he not once disembarked at Normandy, and ran up the beach to seek out the enemy? And what was a dead beast compared with the horror of an army of Krauts baying for his blood?

He crouched and lightly placed two gloved fingers on one of the thing's eyes. He flicked the eyelids open, finding little resistance. The eye was mostly iris, coloured a dull brown and flecked with gold. It closed again, making an insectile clicking sound, when George quickly withdrew his hand. He cautiously probed the mouth, and was relieved to find that it was as toothless as his own. A set of incisors would possibly have shattered his nerve.

He tramped back towards his shed, not paying any heed to the well-being of his parsnips. This new development was infinitely more interesting.

George carefully removed his gloves, taking care not to touch the places where they had come in contact with the dead thing. He sat on his folding chair and ate the corned beef sandwiches that Joyce had made him. Hot, sugary tea from his thermos flask washed the crumbs from his dentures. The snack had been inside a plastic carrier bag marked MORRISON'S. George put his gloves back on, took the bag, and returned to the worm-like abomination. Ever so carefully, as though it were a fragile, ancient artefact, he slid a hand beneath it, watching intently for signs of life.

He was not a squeamish man -he'd once found a dead fox behind his greenhouse, maggots crawling from its eyeballs, and he'd had no trouble disposing of it. But this was something ungodly, and the sight of it made the contents of his stomach lurch. He steeled himself and gently placed it in the bag, ensuring that its face was looking upwards. He wanted to be able to show this freakish visage to whomever he bid peer into the bag. Also, if it happened to have an arsehole, he did not wish to see it.

He put away his chair and tools, locked up the small shed, and set off home, weighed down with meat instead of crop. His new prize was light enough that he did not fear the flimsy bag disintegrating and spilling its contents on the pavement.

He tried not to swing the bag as he trudged past row upon row of uniform redbrick council housing. The rain continued to fall obstinately and people shuffled past clutching umbrellas. Cars drifted along, or sat dilapidated on postage-stamp front drives. As George walked on through the sprawling, government-built estate where he had lived his entire life, he felt for the first time like king of all he surveyed.

George swept triumphantly through his front door, like a returning hunter loaded with bounty to feed and clothe his family for the winter. Having carried his strange discovery all the way home, his sense of discomfort had now been alleviated, and he was keen to tell all and sundry of his adventure.

Joyce was in the living room, stitching a tapestry. It was a depiction of the incumbent Pope. She looked up in surprise as George came in to the room.

"Hello love, I wasn't expecting you home so soon. Bit wet out, is it?" She glanced down at his boots and was about to rebuke him for tramping mud through the hall, when he held the plastic bag aloft as though it were a holy relic.

"You'll never guess what I found over the allotment."

Joyce took off her glasses and peered at the elongated silhouette within the shopping bag. "A really big sausage?" she ventured.

"Nope. Guess again."

She stared for a moment longer. "Oh, I have no idea George. Give us a clue."

George's arm was aching, and he lowered the bag. "It's something that no one on Earth has ever seen before."

"Is it... A massive cigar?"

"No! How could a big cigar be something that no one's ever seen?"

Joyce shrugged. "Oh for Heaven's sake. Stop messing about and tell me."

"I have discovered..." he paused for dramatic effect. "An extra-terrestrial."

Her face was blank. "A what?"

"A bloody alien!"

"You never have!"

"Have a look then," he urged her, opening the bag. Joyce peered inside and gasped.

"Oooh, what did you bring it in the house for? You silly old fool! It might have germs!"

"I know that! I ain't touched it. Anyway, it won't do us any harm as long as we leave it be. Dead as a doornail." He closed the bag, deflated by her lack of enthusiasm.

"Why didn't you call the police? Or the firemen?" she asked.

"What the bloody hell would they do about it? The Old Bill nowadays don't know their arse from their elbow."

Joyce shuffled around tidying away her sewing materials into a wooden box that George had made for her in the early years of their marriage. "Shall I stick the kettle on?" she inquired cheerily.

"Yeah, alright. Make sure you leave the teabag in a while though. Don't want it to taste like dishwater." He placed the foreign carcass gently on the table, and hung his coat in the hall.

"Not where we eat!" chastised Joyce when she returned with two steaming cups of brew. George grumbled under his breath and moved it to the potting shed, where it sat silently among his seedlings.

Burning his tongue as he sipped his tea, George settled himself into his armchair and picked up the phone. His youngest son had explained that numbers could be programmed into the new-fangled device, but George couldn't be arsed with all that. He reached for a crumbling address book, its cover adorned with a photo of kittens and flowers. A lot of the names in there had been neatly crossed through when acquaintances had passed on.

George called Frank first. "Frank! Alright my son? Yeah, not bad. Listen, you coming down the Travellers later? I've got something to show you. You're never going to believe this..."

With each phone call, the narrative was exaggerated. Joyce rolled her eyes and tutted as her husband's tale grew at an exponential rate. A simple discovery became a jaw-dropping near-death experience at the hands of sentient beings from another world, who fled in a silver, disc-shaped ship after George waved his shovel at them in defiance.

Later on, after a tea that did not include Joyce's delectable parsnips, George donned his coat, flat cap, and scarf, and announced that he was off down the pub. Joyce bid him goodbye and settled down contentedly to watch the soaps and do the Daily Mirror Su Doku. She was grateful for the peace and quiet - George always spent the entirety of the soap operas bemoaning the lack of realism.

George collected his Morrison's bag from the shed. He'd locked it in there for safe-keeping. Some people would steal anything that wasn't nailed down.



The Three Travellers was half empty, as was usually the case on a weekday night. Numbers had gradually dwindled over the decades that George had been a regular, and he supposed that the impending smoking ban would further diminish profits. He felt sorrowful at the idea that his old drinking hole might be forced to close.

Only three of the half-dozen of his friends whom he had called had bothered to show up, despite the magnitude of his claim. The ones that had let curiosity overcome scepticism had already made good progress towards getting utterly bladdered. They hailed him, raising their glasses as he approached their table. He held the bag aloft and grinned, flashing his uniform dentures.

"Give us a look then!" called Frank.

"We thought you was pulling our legs!" said Geoff. "If it turns out to be a dead badger in there, you're buying the next ten rounds."

George shuffled over, clutching the bag closed. "Buy us a pint first, and then I'll give you a look," he said, sounding like a cheap tart on the pull. He sat and tucked the bag between his feet, ignoring their groans of disbelief. He lit a cigarette, and gratefully sipped the foam of the ale that was placed before him.

"Did those aliens stick anything up your arse?" enquired Dave jovially.

"Buggers wanted to, but I didn't let 'em!" George replied.

"Get it out then," begged Geoff. "'Ere, shift this, he can stick it on the table." Glasses and ashtrays were moved aside, and George plumped the plastic-wrapped corpse in a puddle of warm beer.

When he'd found the thing, he'd noticed little discernible odour, but now the congregation of geriatrics wrinkled their noses before the bag was even opened.

"Bloody stinks! You sure it ain't a bag of dog turds like Mickey Dean reckons some kid put through his letter box?" said Dave.

George opened the bag with slow ceremony and rolled the sides down, exposing the contents. His three friends crowded round, squinting through their glasses. Silence descended momentarily before Frank broke it.

"Looks like a massive grub. Is that supposed to be its face?"

George looked down. Since he'd found the creature, it seemed to have succumbed to rapid decomposition. The vague features had grown shrivelled, and the skin had turned a sickening shade of grey-green. What passed as lips had drawn back, exposing more of the gaping, toothless orifice.

"Ugly bugger, isn't he?" observed Dave.

"Yeah, smells as bad as he looks," laughed Geoff. He was about to prod the dead thing, but George hastily slapped his hand away.

"Hands off! You don't know what sort of space germs it has!"

They all roared with laughter at this, but no one ventured to touch it again.

The drinks flowed, and George relished being the centre of attention. He regaled them with his increasingly embellished tale once more, though they no more believed him than they had when he'd claimed he was at the'66 World Cup final, or that he was good friends with the Kray twins. The carcass in the carrier bag, however, could not be scoffed at, and George was content with that.

Growing increasingly inebriated, George called other patrons over to see his bounty. The barmaids shrieked in horror and covered their faces with their hands. The young barman declared that it must be some movie prop, though George sensed unease beneath his veil of nonchalance. A few people suggested that George sell his story to The Sun, and he vowed that he would first thing in the morning. Once he had slept off his inevitable hangover.

The smell had worsened considerably. The pub landlord had grumbled, but not turfed them out, for he could see that people were drinking heavily in their exuberance. It was a rare thing indeed for something so marvellous to happen in Dagenham. Some bystanders had even phoned their friends and told them to come and see the freakish dead being that some old codger had brought along to the pub.

Come closing time, George bid his companions good night, took the bag, and set off on the short walk back to his council terrace. He was filled with a sense of great accomplishment, and whistled along the way. He envisaged his face, triumphant on the front of all the papers. 'WAR HERO DISCOVERS ALIEN LIFEFORM' the headlines would read. People would recognise him in the supermarket and ask to hear his tale first hand. Strangers would buy him drinks and offer him cigarettes. His family would no longer roll their eyes when he regaled them with some improbable tale of past endeavour. Tonight, Joyce might even reward his heroism with a quick tumble between the sheets. His step quickened at the thought.

George paused as he waited for the zebra crossing lights to change, and opened up the bag once more to peer at the creature. Cracks had formed in its translucent skin, and clear pus was oozing out of the ruptures, making the flesh stick to inside of the bag. He hoped it wouldn't disintegrate entirely before he had the chance to prove its existence to the world's media.

The lights changed and he crossed the road with a swaying gait. He passed the local shops, the gaudy signs of the kebab and chicken take-aways the only ones illuminated at this hour. Turning into his side street, he came upon a youth loitering on the corner. The boy's hood was up, and his face was shaded by the peak of a baseball cap. George was about to pass him, when the youngster suddenly obstructed his path and pulled a knife from his pocket.

"Oi, don't shout, or I'll stab you," he said in a low voice. George eyed the blade. It was small, but he judged it could do some generous damage if this kid was irked.

"What do you want then?" asked George boldly, the alcohol in his system spurring his confidence.

"Just give me what you've got," said the mugger, holding out a hand to receive whatever valuables George might have about his person. George wondered whether he'd be able to give an accurate description of this oik to the police, and decided that the answer was a negative. He was as homogenous as all the rest.

"Argh, bloody hell!" exclaimed George, rifling through his coat pockets with his free hand and producing a handful of change, which he passed over grudgingly. Now a different newspaper headline flashed through his mind - 'YOB KILLS WAR HERO FOR A FIVER'.

"You lot don't know you're born. I fought for this country! Took a bullet and all." This last part was untrue, though it was a story he'd told so frequently that he half-believed it himself.

The youth ignored him, pocketing the change, and stood doggedly, knife poised. "Ain't you got a wedding ring?"

"Jewellery's for birds." George noticed several gaudy signet rings on the lad's own hand. "And pansies," he added. His insult went unnoticed.

"Got any fags?"

George tutted again, and produced his tobacco tin. It was one he considered lucky, and he was loath to part with it. "Golden Virginia," he explained.

"Nah, sod that," the teen said, shaking his head. "Keep it."

"Well thank you very much," George said sarcastically.

"What's in the bag?" The mugger indicated with his knife.

George instinctively held the bag back, unsure of what to say. "What do you want with an old man's joint of pork?" he improvised.

"Might give it to my mum. 'And it over."

George hesitated. Maybe the boy was all talk, and had no intention of knifing a pensioner for a few quid and a bit of meat. Then he saw an impatient movement in the knife-hand, and quickly held the bag out. The boy recoiled.

"Piss off, it stinks! That ain't pork! You cut off someone's arm, mate?"

George shook his head.

"Let's 'ave a look."

George sighed and held the bag open. The boy stared at the alien being, his mouth gaping.

"What the shitting hell is that? A dead baby gone wrong?"

"It ain't a dead baby. What would I be doing carrying one of those around?"

"What is it then?" The boy was transfixed.

"I was attacked by aliens and I killed one of them."

The boy laughed, and seemingly forgetting the situation let his knife-wielding hand drop to his side. "Give it 'ere. I wanna look at it properly."

George gave up the bag, his dreams of fame and fortune evaporating. The mugger pocketed his knife and reached his hand into the bag. George stifled a cry of horror as the boy pulled the carcass from the sticky interior of the bag and held it in one hand. It looked as though it were ready to collapse entirely. The pallid flesh was ruptured and seeping, but the boy was so captivated that he did not express any revulsion at the ooze running down his wrist.

"I'm gonna get well loads of hits on Youtube," he muttered in awe.

George was wondering what the hell 'Youtube' might be, when suddenly the unearthly being appeared to change before his very eyes. The weeping sores widened, and the features became indistinguishable. It seemed to dissolve rapidly, turning to thick, colourless slime and sliding through the boy's fingers.

"Ah bollocks!" he shrieked in a suddenly childish voice. He shook his hand in alarm, sending the rancid innards flying into the road. Some splattered on the windscreens of nearby cars. George wondered how bad this part of the street would smell by morning.

The boy was flapping his arm wildly, then wiping it across the crass logo adorning his designer hoodie. The plastic Morrison's bag fell from his grasp and floated away on a light breeze. George couldn't abide litter, but there was no way on Earth he was going to pick up the putrid shopping bag and dispose of it properly.

The boy abruptly fell to his knees, retching and clutching his abdomen. George did not move to help his erstwhile attacker, only stood regarding him with grim fascination. The boy proceeded to vomit large chunks of half-digested kebab. The odour of the spiced meat mingled with that of the fetid alien remains, and George felt his own stomach heave. By now the boy had crumpled on his side and was gasping for breath.

"Ambulance," he managed to choke out.

George ignored the request. Despite the horror unfolding before him, he was feeling an immense satisfaction at being proven correct in his assumption that the alien being harboured foreign bacteria. He was almost willing to write off the loss of his prize against the considerable pleasure he was taking at witnessing this reprobate receive his just-desserts. He made a mental note to remind Joyce how he had often expressed a strong fear of being robbed by a knife-wielding thug, and how she had scoffed at his paranoia.

By now, the boy was making faint gurgling noises and twitching on the ground. George looked about and saw that there was not a soul around to witness his callousness, then started walking home. He looked down at his coat and noted with relief that none of the creature's remains had made contact with him. He also took care not to tread in any of the droplets of discharge that surrounded the dying teen. As he passed a dented Ford Escort, he paused to examine a portion of flesh that had landed on the bonnet. It was rapidly liquefying, and as he watched the matter evaporated entirely.

"Humph," said George. "Well I'll be damned." He walked on.



The Dagenham Post came out on Wednesday. George rushed to the newsagents as soon as it opened in order to procure a copy. The local paper had more pressing matters to discuss than the demise of an anonymous teen - chiefly the distinct possibility that Dagenham Redbridge FC might finally be promoted to the football league. There was a small piece on the boy's unexplained death on page seven. The coroner suspected that he'd been suffering from an undiscovered heart condition, and there was no suggestion of foul play. Family and friends noted what a lovely lad he was, and lamented the cruel tragedy of his sudden passing. George noticed that there was no mention of the corpse being discovered surrounded by mysterious entrails. To his vast relief, there was also no word of locals being struck dead by a new strain of superbug either.

"Who's going to believe it now?" he asked Joyce glumly over breakfast.

"At least you got the chance to show all those people in the pub," she reminded him.

"Yeah, but it ain't the same as having my picture in the national papers. They'll think I'm losing my marbles if I tell them now."

"Oh I don't know about that," said his wife, pouring another cup of tea. "Not if you show them the photos."

"What photos?" he snorted. "I didn't bloody take any!"

"I did though," she said proudly. "There were a few left on that disposable camera we took to Trev's wedding. I'll get the bus to Heathway and get them developed. Will that stop your moping?"

George thought that it would.

2 comments:

  1. great! loved it. i like the way you write about the realities of life, what the so called little things mean to normal people.
    smoking ban, local pub closing etc
    really well done!

    michael mccarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well written and well paced.

    Nice narrative style......

    Arthur

    ReplyDelete