Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sister Act by Michael McCarthy

An ageing vet becomes dangerously obsessed with a lonely woman whose bay window he can see into from his hostel across the road; by Michael McCarthy.

Pat lay in the dark, on his couch watching the television, but not really taking it in. His attention was focused on the house directly opposite. It had been that way since he'd moved here. Sometimes he lay reading but he'd stop after every paragraph to check across the road. Occasionally he'd take a swig from a bottle of whisky before returning it to its temporary hiding place, beneath a cushion, under his buttocks.

Nothing was safe around here.

Over the road, Carmel was kneeling on her expensive looking, classically designed looking white leather armchair by the bay window, head phones on, eyes closed and conducting a, to the outside world, silent symphony, her long elegant fingers tracing arcane, delicate movements in the air. A bottle of mineral water and a crystal glass on a small foot stool beside her.

She had her routine and this was when she would appear, for him.

On the rare occasions he saw her outside, she was always with a hatched faced harridan who seemed to regard Carmel as her own property.

In fact, that's how he knew her name. He'd one day heard the witch scolding her charge, 'Come on Carmel. Come on girl, we haven't got all day.' And then she'd grabbed the unfortunate young woman by the elbow and frogmarched her home.

He remembered how he'd felt when he looked at her, as she was transported into a musical realm he couldn't begin to perceive. The smile on her face, the litheness of her body, her slow unhurried actions and the way her glossy black hair shone as it danced on her shoulders, her body at one with the music.

The picture of contentment. Not a sign of tension or stress, no giveaway lines on her smooth, alabaster face.

He didn't spy on her, he wasn't a voyeur or anything like that.

He just appreciated this indefinable quality and serenity she possessed, it made him feel uplifted and at peace, if only temporarily.

It's the little things that tell you most about a person; she would never close the window blinds completely, he reckoned she liked to have little cracks to allow the pale yellow of the street light to bleed in at night or the sunlight to creep in in the morning.

Pat knew what that meant, it was some kind of deep rooted insecurity and, he guessed, it was linked to something in her past.

But then, we all have our secrets, don't we?

Pat knew that it didn't pay to pry and speculate too much, it could just open a long buried can of worms.

Of course, Pat had his foibles too. He knew that better than anybody. He could be a bit reclusive, some would say a loner, but only now and again, not always.

He was a regular at the local pub, 'The New Tiger's Head.' Perhaps, every now again, he drank a few too many, but never in the pub and alcohol didn't make him aggressive or melancholic.

It just helped him to switch off.

Then, one day, Carmel made a choice.

Pat had the impression he was an architect or maybe a car salesman or a footballer's agent. The first time he saw him he took an instant dislike to him, the way he strutted around in shades with a cravat knotted around his throat, getting out of his shining black chariot.

Of course, maybe he was just a friend.

And, it was true, he hadn't stayed the night. Yet.

'But they've only just met, for goodness sake.'

'Best to keep my powder dry,' he thought to himself. 'At least for the time being. Just keep a weather eye on things.'

Well, if Pat had his foibles, so did her new bloke.

She would find out eventually and, hopefully, see the mistake she was making.

Before it was too late.

It was obvious, he wasn't the one for her.

With his sunbed skin and oil slick gelled hair, his appearance just screamed, 'Narcissist.'

She was too artistic and refined for that.

His name is Jason.

One evening, pretending to check if he had something in his eye, Pat had stopped at the gleaming jeep-like monstrosity and, looking into a wing mirror made some vague rubbing motions around his eye; at the same time he had glanced into its spotless and frighteningly tidy interior and saw an official looking document lying on the front passenger's seat bearing the name Jason, he couldn't make out the surname.

Anyway, it was pub night, mind you, most nights were pub night. But tonight was Pub Quiz Night, he looked forward to that.

Jason stayed the night.

Pat saw him skulking outside the front door.

'Don't tell me she's given him a key already?'

Pat had an unsettled night. It was not that they advertised it, they didn't have to, he knew what they were up to. Frankly, he was surprised at Carmel. Jason, he couldn't really blame. He would do the same in Jason's position, in his oh so smart loafers with the little tassels. Jason had very small feet, Pat had noticed, dainty in fact.

He immersed his head in a wash basin of cold water and kept it in there for as long as he could, until he thought his lungs would burst. It had been a good idea. The water was invigorating. Helped to clear his head. He'd had a few too many while lying on the couch after the pub last night. Thinking.

Pat had an idea. He would bump into Jason, not confrontationally, but check him out.

He was sitting across the road on the kerb, his eyes glued to the street outside Carmel's window until, eventually, Jason's juggernaut glided elegantly to a smooth halt a few houses down. Jason teased and touched up his hair for a few moments, as Pat knew he would, he was that type, giving Pat time to sprint up to Carmel's street door.

He had an old screwdriver in his hand, and was kneeling by the front door as though he was repairing the lock, when Jason slowly unwound his clearly well honed body from the driver's seat.

A creature of habit, Jason stood legs apart, smoothed back his shiny, immaculately coiffured hair, propped his sun glasses on top, then, clearly aware he was being observed, bounded manfully up the steps.

Pat took that moment to stand up, stretch his back and note happily that he was taller than Jason. Not much, but taller, and he, Pat, was wearing flat shoes, then again, so was Jason.

But taller is taller.

'Can I help you?' he enquired proprietorially as Jason reached the front door.

Jason shook his head tiredly. Like a superstar being accosted by a particularly odious tabloid reporter.

He just oozed an oily arrogance, like that muck on top of his stupid head.

Well, Pat wasn't going to react to this passive provocation. Not yet anyway.

He didn't like this. Didn't like it at all.

He went down the pub.

When he got back, it was just in time to see Jason kicking the front door shut as he struggled through it with two heavy looking suitcases.

So, he was moving in with her.

They'd waited until his back was turned.

Thick though Jason undoubtedly was, he obviously recognized that Pat was a tightly coiled spring, just waiting to strike.

Pat lay tossing and turning all night. 'I'm not having this. I'm just not having this.' He repeated endlessly, in a whispered chant, until he eventually dropped off, to be awakened what seemed like seconds later by a bursting bladder.

'You up again?' somebody croaked.

'Put a bleedin' bucket by your bed, instead of waking us all up,' came the bellow from a corner bed.

'You need a bloody catheter, you do,' another denizen spat.

A volley of vulgar comments accompanied Pat on his departure from the dormitory to the toilet on the landing.

The day passed in a dream. Pat went down the pub again.

But tonight they wouldn't let him in.

'I won't tell you again. My customers don't like being accosted by a dirty tramp, so find yourself another spot. Like on the motorway. Come back here again and you'll get a right hiding.'

Two strong pairs of arms lifted Pat off the ground. He knew how stupid it looked. He'd seen it in countless cartoons and old black & white films. A vagrant frantically air peddling as he was unceremoniously ejected from an up market restaurant or hotel.

He slouched back to the hostel. He was sick of this dump. The low lives he was forced to share with. He knew they didn't like him, especially a couple of them.

They'd ruled the joint until he'd arrived and stood up to them. Now they just threw him black looks whenever their paths crossed, muttering darkly under their breath. He didn't care, he'd been through much worse than they could even dream of.

But, he was also grateful for the roof over his head. The house had been donated by some big noise who Pat had never heard of. Osgood was his name, Pat would never forget that as it had also been the name of his favourite footballer. This philanthropic luminary was deeply moved and disappointed by the fates that befell many ex-servicemen and, instead of just vocalizing about it, decided to put his money where his mouth was.

Pat didn't feel sorry for himself, that's just the way it was. But he thought, 'That's the way this country treats those who've served it and their Queen, and who've fallen through the social security net. Or maybe it's easier to fall through the net because they've made the holes bigger. Doesn't matter what you've done, where you've served, what you've faced, what you've experienced, what you've suffered.'

Pat wasn't stupid, he knew that the worst was, maybe, yet to come. He'd been feeling a little bit different for quite some time. But he managed to hold his aggressions in check. He was proud of that. That was an achievement after what he'd been through.

Don't dwell on it.

Rumour had it, they were being moved on. The residents around here didn't like having to wade through the ranks of the great unwashed or breathe their air.

Pat went and lay on the couch. The TV was broken, somebody had put his boot through it. Again.

He looked out of the window to the bay window directly opposite. But she wasn't there. She was always there at this time of the day.

Always. Without fail.

Conducting.

Jason's influence was growing.

She'd changed her habits, she was coming and going at irregular hours.

'What's going on?'

Pat didn't know exactly what she did. He didn't know if there were any female conductors. Or maybe she wrote music. Or just listened to it. Whatever.

He took to the streets, walking had always cleared his head in the past. When he was sober, which at the moment he wasn't. He plodded aimlessly for hours. He didn't get it.

She just didn't seem to have time for her music anymore.

It was Jason's fault. Philistine!

Up ahead, although it was dark, he saw the unmistakable silhouette of Carmel leaving an expensive looking restaurant, with Jason close behind her. Like everything she did it seemed choreographed, but it wasn't, she had a natural grace, but the telling thing was, it emanated from within.

Pat decided something had to be done and now was the time.

But then, things took on a momentum of their own.

Two figures came slinking down the alley towards Carmel. Pat recognized them, and the danger immediately.

He began running towards them, yelling at the top of his voice, 'Carmel, look out...'

…He was looking at the bay window.

She wasn't there.

But of course, he knew she wouldn't be.

He'd just woken up, or rather been woken up, rudely.

By the police.

He couldn't remember anything. Anything.

Another of his alcohol blackouts? Sometimes he induced them when he needed to forget.

This was not one of those times.

He had a huge bruise on the back of his head.

He listened to them telling him how it was; blood stains, Jason's wallet in his pocket, his stalking and how it was going to be.

They put it all together and it equalled a life sentence.



Pat didn't have much in the way of personal effects. He didn't have much in the way of anything.

But he had one thing that he kept close to him at all times.

He didn't know why.

A relic.

Something that he had kept for, how many years was it now?

'Don't fall into that trap. Don't think numbers, think abstract.'

'In fact, don't think at all.'

That's what they said. The ones who knew. The ones who'd been here forever.

Pat reverentially unfolded the yellowed, nearly disintegrated newspaper cutting.

He kept it in a leather pouch, which he wore around his neck.

It was faded but still legible, just.

He read it, again. Well, he didn't read it, didn't need to, he knew every word by heart.

He closed his eyes and extracts of the report appeared enlarged on his internal screen like pages fluttering in scenes from an old Hollywood film.

World famous composer and conductor Ralph Osgood and his wife die in a car crash.

Daughter Carmel and son Jason, who had been driving, survive.

Yearning for happier times, daughter Carmel retreats totally into herself and lives for her father's music. Brother Jason promises his mother on her death bed that he will care for Carmel and gives up a glittering career in academia.

Carmel makes major strides in recovery, Jason seeks unspecified treatment abroad, suspected substance abuse. Leaving his sister in the capable hands of a qualified nurse.

On his return, the siblings are attacked outside a restaurant as they celebrate an upturn in their fortunes. Devoted older brother savagely beaten, robbed and left dying as he saves his sister.

Brother and sister had been stalked for weeks by an ex forces sergeant and had spent the days before the attack house hunting in a different area.

Carmel confines herself to the house.

There were two photographs in the article, but you couldn't make them out anymore. But that didn't matter, they were seared into his mind like a brand.

One was of him, he'd been quite good looking in those days, he had to admit. A touch of the Paul Newman about him.

The other was the last photograph of Carmel and her brother, taken at a black tie event just before that last fateful dinner. He'd never forget her. Her beauty, grace and that smile.

She was standing behind Jason and had her hand on the shoulder of her doting big brother.

There was something about that photo. He'd looked at it again and again in his mind.

What was it?

He'd lost the best years of his life in this hole. Being honest, he'd have lost them anyway.



Out of the blue he received a visitor, a journalist. His first reaction had been to refuse his request, but people weren't exactly queuing up to see him.

The journalist had been tipped off by a reliable contact that somebody had a story to tell that could free an innocent man from a life sentence.

Somebody who'd been living for too many years with a terrible secret. The only survivor of Jason's killers, now aged and infirm and not expected to live much longer.

And on reading of the death of Carmel in a car accident, on the same stretch of road as her parents, the man had finally felt driven to unburden himself.

Slowly and painstakingly, the journalist had put the whole story together.

Carmel had never forgiven her brother for driving the car that had killed their parents.

Jason had been away receiving treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction, haunted by nightmares of his parents' death and his part in it and his sister's endless sniping and barbed remarks.

On his return he'd noticed the stalker and convinced his sister that they should move away. He just couldn't take any more. He wanted them both to start again. Somewhere else.

They'd gone out for dinner to celebrate and reconciliate.

Carmel had hired a couple of thugs to do away with her brother, but they were disturbed by the stalker.

Obviously the thugs couldn't believe their luck when Pat came charging down the alley like a knight to the rescue of a damsel in distress, and after knocking Pat out had poured a bottle of whisky down his throat, stuffed their victim's wallet, after extracting a handful of notes, in his pocket and then dumped him on the couch at the hostel.

He knew who they were, that couple of bullies from the hostel.

Pat's visitor left, promising wheels would be set in motion. Pat promised him an exclusive.

Pat felt strangely unmoved.

He thought about the photo again.

The journalist had left him a contact number.

Pat requested a copy of that last photograph of Carmel and Jason. It arrived a couple of days later.

He studied it long and hard. Her smile, glacial, a rictus.

Carmel's hand was on her brother's shoulder alright.

But it was the hand of an executioner prompting the condemned prisoner on his last walk.

12 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. The story draws you in so effortlessly, you don't know you've been captured until it's too late, while your distinctive pacing adds to the gradual build of tension. And the descriptions, as always, are par excellence. Another fine effort, Michael!

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    2. many, many thanks Jim. your considered critique is something I always look forward to reading (not only in my work) it gives me a boost!

      regards

      Mike

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  2. Love the title, love the imagery: hatched face harridan, frogmarched, bounded manfully up the stairs, oozed an oily arrogance, air peddling. This story had lots of twists and turns and moved so fast I had a hundred images flying through my head. Think it would make a great novel.

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  3. Hallo Christine,
    thanks for your kind words, I´m glad you enjoyed it.

    Mike

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  4. well done Mike; descriptive and well worth reading.

    Keep up the good work ;)

    coops

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  5. Fast-paced, and the descriptive bits were essential to the story, fleshing-out characters so that they became "real" to us, the readers. It seems sad that Pat should have been so deceived by Carmel, so intriguing at the start and such a horror in the end. That, I suppose, is life!
    Beryl

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  6. many thanks Beryl, something along the lines of, you can´t judge a book by ist cover,

    Mike

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  7. great stuff as usual!

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  8. Gabi: I fully agree with Jim Bartlett´s comment. This very sad story develops into a fatal spiral turning faster and faster up to the complete destruction of a lost soul. The irony is that Pat had been lost from the very beginning while he himself still felt some remnants of dignity and self-esteem. These remnants and the humble pleasure of secretly observing beautiful and "pure" Carmel helped him to keep his head above the swamp he lived in, a swamp of misery and poverty, of horrible war memories, suppressed aggressions and resigned bitterness. Still in prison while serving his lifelong sentence he considers Carmel as kind of a saint
    and wears an old newspaper photo of hers like an amulet. Learning the truth about her means the decisive blow. Her hand in the photo is "the hand of an executioner prompting the condemned prisoner on his last walk". I think Pat´s fate stands for all those who never got a chance and never will get one and who know this and who resign. Once again Mike has written a brilliant story.

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  9. At first I thought to have a special love story in my hands. But soon it shows that Mike has put again his focus on extraordinary characters.The dream girl Carmel, however, plays a destructive role in the imagination of the poor soul Pat. Thus the story develops as a fascinating crime story ending so sadly. I enjoyed reading. Norbert

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