Alternative Reality

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In a luxurious and secluded venue, a group of rich and powerful people sit, sipping brandy and discussing the great problems of the world, climate change and how to respond to it without losing their position of privilege. One says, ‘Maybe we have to face it – fossil fuels, consumerism and endless growth are failing – the crazy, green socialists are right – we can’t go on using resources and destroying the planet just to keep siphoning wealth from the poor. Things have got to change.’

But another smiles and says, ‘Don’t forget the other solution.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Downsizing.’

‘Huh?’

‘Fewer people means less destruction of ecosystems and fewer poor people means less inequality. Just what those crazy greens want. If we didn’t have to support so many poor people the world would be much better off.’

‘But what about the gruntwork they do? I don’t want to slave in a care home or pick fruit!’

‘Most of that can be automated – and much of it is unnecessary anyway. We’re only farming them for the interest on the loans that keep them locked in to the system.’

‘Ok. How do you propose to downsize?’

‘Simple. Make sure universal healthcare fails and have a few wars … more brandy anyone?’

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Truth and Consequences (a tragedy)

Prologue

A man on a bony bay gelding rides up the forest track, among dark spruce and flaming maple. Above him, the high faint calls of climbing buzzards speak of space and solitude. At a certain spot he slows and stops, as if by habit. He dismounts and unsaddles the horse. ‘You ready for this?’ He gives the horse a slap on its rump, and another, to send it back down the trail. Then, alone in the forest, he gazes around him, breathing in a great lungful of the resiny air. Delicately, he takes off from round his neck a small suede bag. Worn dark and soft with years of wear, it opens easily, tips out into his hand his shining good-luck piece. ‘I hope you’re waiting for me, Carlo,’ he says to the empty air. ‘I didn’t mean to take so long.’

***

The man in the wheelchair looked out across the still water of the lake. ‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ Walker ventured, but got no reply. The man seemed almost unaware of Walker standing beside him, impervious to this attempt at conversation. He had thick wiry dark hair, beginning to grey – about 40? He looked cold and profoundly tired.

Later, back in the clinic, Walker asked the room, ‘What’s with that guy in the wheelchair? I’ve never seen him do anything but sit.’

‘You mean our amputee? He’s a cop – or was. Name’s Giannini. He’s been here 9 months now. Some kind of PTSD. Plus he’s been on a lot of pain meds after the amputation.’

‘Visitors?’

‘There were any number of girls to start with but most of them gave up pretty soon. It was a shame about that one, what was her name, Jenny? She stuck it out the longest. I thought she might have been able to do him some good.’

‘Or you might have picked her up on the rebound, eh, Drake?’ Nurse McNeil said drily.

***

Jenny tried so hard to help him, to get him back. She sat with him, talked to him, took him out into the sun. But his invisible fortifications only seemed to get stronger, until even holding his hand felt like a kind of violation. When in the end, in desperation, she tried to reach him with her lips on his, he had turned away so absolutely, it felt like a slap in the face.

‘If you had seen him, Leanne,’ she said to her friend, ‘he looked … so …’

‘So what?’

‘I don’t know … it was like I disgusted him. I think he hates me and I don’t know why.’

***

Drake laughed off McNeil’s gibe and went on: ‘A couple of guys, cops, used to come by for a while, but that stopped after he threw a fit, knocked the skinny one down … It was quite a surprise; he’d never been aggressive before. Never been anything really, except that one time.’

‘What’s the story then?’

‘I dunno, not my patient – you’ll have to look at the files.’

Case file no. 790503-12 Date: 12 October 1975

Det. Alessandro Giannini – age 35, wt 170 – RTA on Rte 123 (PD incident no. 13546-10) – on arrival at ER: hypothermia/lower rt limb trauma/compound fractures/necrosis – reconstructive surgery excluded. Recommendation: amputation/prosthesis.

Psych. Consult – PTSD?

Patient unresponsive. Though able to understand and respond appropriately in essential practical matters.

‘Well that doesn’t tell us much.’ The case conference was not getting very far. Dr Walker was the newcomer who had requested an update on Giannini, among other patients whose care he was taking over, and it seemed that the clinic staff had almost given up on this one. ‘Does anybody know what the circumstances of the RTA were? How come he came in with hypothermia?’

‘I don’t think anyone knows what really happened – he won’t talk, but you could look at the PD incident report.’

‘Ok – and I think I’ll go and see if I can find someone who knew this guy before.’

At police HQ, Walker asked if he could see the case file.

PD incident no. 13546-10

Rescue helicopter called out to vicinity of Rte 123 in state park after hikers reported burnt out vehicle on hillside below forest road. Officers Giannini and Svensson found 20 yds from vehicle. Svensson deceased at scene – multiple internal injuries. ToD estimated to be 24hrs prior to discovery. Giannini evacuated to City Hospital.

Evidence at scene suggests driver lost control and vehicle left road on sharp bend. Fire cannot have resulted directly from impact as jerry can had been removed from trunk. Tracks and blood at scene suggest some activity prior to fire.

Giannini’s ex-colleagues were not too eager to talk about him and his dead partner, but Walker was told that the accident was just that. There were no suspicious circumstances; they hadn’t been on duty when it happened. In fact they were on a camping trip in the state park and it looked like the car had gone off the road because of a deer. There were still deer tracks and skid marks visible in spite of the rain, according to the park ranger who had attended the scene and given evidence at Svensson’s inquest.

‘Giannini and Svensson were friends as well as colleagues then?’

‘Yes, you could say that. They’d been partners for years – if they hadn’t got on that wouldn’t have worked. They drank together, chased the same girls…, watched out for each other – you know … partners can end up like brothers.’ The young cop shrugged.

‘This report is pretty minimal. Are there any photos?’

‘Yes but …’

‘But what?’

‘You are a doctor right? Confidentiality applies?’

Walker frowned. ‘Of course.’

‘Here you are then.’

There were several photos of the burnt-out car, and the trail of destruction through the brush that it had created in its descent of the hillside.

‘Looks like they were lucky to get out alive,’ murmured Walker, to himself.

‘Only one of them did, in the end,’ said the cop.

The next photo stopped Walker’s casual flipping through the pile. It showed Giannini and another man lying close together in what looked like a peaceful embrace. They both appeared to be sleeping. There were several other images showing details of the scene: Giannini’s leg, broken and bloody with an improvised tourniquet, resting gently across his partner’s legs; their joined hands on Svensson’s chest, partly hiding a small leather pouch which hung on a cord round his neck.

Walker raised his eyebrows and looked a question at the officer. ‘Were they…?’

‘No, I’m sure… look – there were rumours, you know, but I never believed it. They were real ladies’ men, especially Alex – Giannini that is – “the Italian stallion”,’ he grinned. ‘Like I said they were just partners… But nobody would want these pictures to get out …’ He looked up at Walker, somber again. ‘They were good guys, good at their jobs, you know? They are missed…’

‘You liked them.’ The cop nodded, remembering.

***

It had been his first day in the precinct – newly graduated and a bit daunted by the hectic atmosphere, typewriters clattering under the indelicate fingers of hefty policemen, voices, harsh or murmuring, of cops and the people ‘helping them with their inquiries’. Svensson had noticed him first, hovering by the squadroom door, and with the briefest of glances he had alerted Giannini, whose genial smile had welcomed in the new boy. They had taken time to show him the ropes, and as time passed, without meaning to, they had also shown him the value of friendship and loyalty in dangerous places.

 

Only later had he fully recognised how much he had learned from them, about the job, about the world they lived in and how to survive in it honourably.

 

***

‘I owe them,’ he said quietly.

Another question occurred to Walker.

‘Why were these photos taken? Surely they should have been treating Giannini?’

‘At first we thought both of them were …  It was standard procedure.’

‘You were there?’

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Why did you think they were both dead?’

‘They were both so still and cold. We couldn’t find a pulse at first. Alex was grey, and Karl looked like a ghost.’ His mouth twisted at the memory.

‘The hypothermia makes sense then.’ Looking more closely at the photos, Walker could see that both men’s clothes were sodden – though the contents of an overnight bag were scattered nearby.

‘It looked like maybe Alex had used some clothes as a kinda fuse to light the gas tank – there was an empty gas can and a burnt trail leading towards the car. We guessed he’d been trying to send up a signal. Didn’t work – the weather was shit all weekend and no one was out and about in the woods till the Monday.’

Walker looked at the photos again and felt suddenly cold.

‘So there they were, trying to keep warm, waiting to die in the middle of nowhere – I wonder if Giannini even realised Svensson had died?’ Walker was just thinking aloud again but he got an answer.

‘I think he must have.’

‘Why? He looks so peaceful here – surely he couldn’t have known he was lying beside a corpse, his friend’s …’ Walker’s vivid imagination made him leave the word unspoken.

‘When he woke up in the hospital, I was there – I was assigned to take a statement as soon as possible.’

‘And? What did he say?’

‘Nothing. That’s the thing – he didn’t ask where Karl – Svensson – was or anything. That would have been his first question if he didn’t already know … ’

‘But then … you’re saying he knew Svensson was … gone, but he stayed there beside him. Didn’t try to get himself out of there – just lay there waiting …?’

‘Like you said before, waiting to die.’

Walker looked at the two relaxed faces in the photo. Svensson’s cheek was hidden by Giannini’s dark hair and his left hand held Giannini’s right on his chest, his right arm curved against Giannini’s broad back. In spite of the traces of tears and blood on Giannini’s sooty face he looked like a different man to the silent, closed patient Walker had tried to speak to … content almost.

Walker returned to the clinic thinking hard. He had borrowed the photos; he hoped they might give him a way into Giannini’s defensive shell. The next day he conferred with his colleagues as they glanced at the photos.

‘They look like lovers, not cops.’ Drake always said the obvious.

‘That’s why the police didn’t want to show these to me. I had to plead doctor-patient confidentiality.’

‘I don’t believe that for a minute,’ Nurse McNeil spoke over him. The senior psychiatric nurse was scornful. ‘He’s the straightest guy in this place.’

‘How can you tell? He never speaks.’

‘Well you just watch his eyes when a pretty thing like Nurse James comes in. He may be shut down but his autopilot’ll follow her round the room, and she’ll know it. As over-sexed and male as they come, I’d say.’ She snorted coarsely. ‘The sexy face of male dominance, that’s what he is.’ Walker was somewhat taken aback by this frank judgement; he had yet to get to know Nurse McNeil and had been misled by her prim, spinsterish looks.

‘Well, uhh. … The cop I spoke to said they were good friends, partners for years, “chased the same girls” was his phrase. So … whatever the relationship you can see that Giannini would be hit hard by this experience. Imagine it … 24 hours…’ A med school lecture on rigor mortis suddenly came to mind as Walker looked again at the photos, and he tried to repress a shudder. ‘We must get him to process it somehow. He’s clearly in deep denial.’

‘Good luck with that,’ said Drake, raising a dubious eyebrow.

Giannini was sitting, impassive as ever, gazing through the window of the consulting room, though it only looked out on to a parking lot. Walker pulled up a chair beside him.

‘Alessandro, Alex, I’ve got something to show you.’ He opened the folder containing the ‘crime scene’ photos and put it in Giannini’s lap. Giannini didn’t move or look down.

‘Ok, I’m going to hold them up where you can see them.’ Walker displayed the photos in Giannini’s line of sight, waiting until a slight movement suggested Giannini had focused on them before he started slowly to work through the pile, starting with the images of the car and its surroundings. But before he got to the photos of the two men he put the pile down, saying, ‘Shall I go on?’

For the first time Giannini looked him in the eye, ‘No.’ It was barely a sound. Giannini turned his chair away and began to wheel himself to the door. ‘Let me out,’ in a fierce whisper.

Walker watched him going down the corridor. Drake came up behind him. ‘Progress?’

‘I really don’t know… do four words count?’

The next morning when Walker came in to work he was immediately confronted by one of the night staff. ‘What did you do to stir up Giannini? He’s never any trouble normally – takes his meds like a good boy – but last night he refused. He won’t have slept much without them I reckon, and he woke up yelling.’

‘Yelling what?’

‘I don’t know, nothing that made any sense – “sorry”, maybe?’

In the consulting room again, Giannini was clearly in a different state – no longer gazing blankly out of the window. He looked haggard with lack of sleep and his eyes were red.

As soon as Walker entered the room, Giannini spoke. ‘Show me those photos.’

‘Ok – here you are.’ Giannini took the pile of prints from him hesitantly, and worked his way through them again to the point where they had stopped the day before.

‘Do you want to go on?’

‘No…yes…’

‘It’s ok – take your time…’

Giannini closed his eyes tightly, breathed deeply, and then looked at the next photo. He stared at it for several minutes, tension vivid in his jaw, until, with a hoarse groan, he scattered the pile across the room. His head dropped and his whole body seemed to fold in on itself. The heels of his hands pressed his eyes closed, fingers hooked into his thick hair.

Walker spoke very quietly. ‘It’s ok to grieve you know. When you’ve lost so much…’

‘For fuck’s sake! I’m not a child!’ The anger and pain in Giannini’s voice and face when he looked up were shocking. ‘I know what I’ve lost! What he took …’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh shut up! Why did you bring those …?’ Giannini suddenly hauled himself out of his chair, reaching across the desk and grabbing Walker by the lapels. ‘Listen, you bastard. What do you know about anything? Don’t try and tell me what I’ve lost. You don’t … ah Christ, let me get out of here!’ He pushed Walker away and slumped back into the chair, his fists clenched on its arms, waiting for the door to open.

Outside the room again, Drake asked the same question. ‘Progress?’

‘This time, I think so … but he’s a bit…uh… forceful when he lets go,’ Walker replied ruefully, easing his neck and smoothing his shirt collar into place. ‘I’m glad I’m not some crook he’s after.’

At their next meeting, Giannini was gruffly apologetic. ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s better than silence.’ Walker smiled. Giannini did not smile back.

‘So you’re here. Do you want to talk about what happened that night?’

‘I dunno that I can…’

‘Ok – is there anything you would like to talk about?’

Giannini raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. Though he still looked worn and tired, there was more life in the dark eyes when he looked back at Walker. The months-long freeze was beginning to thaw, it seemed.

‘What do you suggest? Baseball?’ with a twisted smile. ‘I don’t think so.’ And as his defended features softened, Walker got a hint of the man he had been and found himself wondering what it would be like to be his friend. ‘There it is,’ he thought, ‘what McNeil was talking about – charisma, animal magnetism, whatever you call it … ’

‘Tell me about Svensson, “Karl” was it? You were partners a long time…’

‘Yes … 8, no, 9 years …’

‘So you worked well together?’

‘I suppose…’

***

 

The two newly promoted detectives shook hands a little warily. They certainly weren’t a matching set. Giannini was dark with curly hair, a Boston drawl, and a Mediterranean look to match his name. Svensson was taller, blond and smooth, a typical mid-westerner, dressed in a sports coat and slacks. Giannini thought he looked like a lawyer at the weekend. Svensson thought Giannini looked like a street punk. Capt. Stone saw the mutual reserve and sighed internally. ‘Ok you two. Why don’t you get your teeth into this. Let’s see what you’re made of,’ handing them a couple of manila files. ‘There’ve been several robberies in Chinatown, similar MO…. well, off you go.’ He watched them as they left the office, shaking his head. ‘That doesn’t look so promising…’ he thought.

 

Giannini looked across the desk at this stranger who seemed to be inspecting him with some disdain. ‘So, Svensson. Where do you want to start with this? A trip down to Chinatown?’

‘Karl’ll do. I guess that makes sense. Whose car?’

‘I’ll drive, if you’re ok with that, Carlo,’ with a quick smile that softened Svensson’s irritation at the instant nickname. ‘I’ve been looking forward to getting out of the black and white,’ and the smile broadened into an engaging grin of anticipation.

 

A few weeks after that, Stone began to think he hadn’t made a mistake putting them together after all. They seemed to have fallen quickly into an easy way of working without that competitive edge that could get in the way. And as the months passed he watched them develop the physical and verbal shorthand of a well-rehearsed team.

 

The two detectives’ characters were as different as their looks. Svensson was a reticent and analytical man. Though decisive in action, he was prone to self-doubts and had rarely felt totally at home in the world, tending to find himself on the fringes of things, a discreet and quiet observer. He sometimes felt he was invisible, sometimes hoped he was. Giannini, by contrast, had no such doubts. In spite of a cool cynicism acquired through a life lived on the rougher side of society, he was physically and mentally at ease with the world and his place in it, confident in his view of right and wrong. He had actively chosen his side in that battle, leaving behind a family and community with distinctly more murky loyalties.

 

In 1953, when Alex was 13 and Joe Giannini came back from Korea, Alex had felt like all was well with the world. Joe was his war hero big brother who had survived the bullets of the bad guys and come home with honour and a medal. He wanted nothing more than to be as strong and fine as Joe. Things hadn’t looked quite so great for Joe himself. War was nothing like Alex’s teenage imagination painted it and Korea had not left Joe with a heroic self-image. It was not long before he fell in with the other disillusioned young hustlers, cousins and childhood companions following a family tradition. Small crimes led to bigger ones and by the time Alex was 16, Joe was a well-established gangster; by the time Alex was 18, Joe was in the state pen, on charges of drug dealing and manslaughter.

Alex had watched this transformation with sadness and dismay. But the effect on his developing character had been to harden his resolve to refuse that heritage, not to add to their mother’s shame. Though Joe had utterly failed to live up to Alex’s teenage ideal, the years since had only strengthened his belief in that ideal.

 

Giannini’s positive and generous nature made him a good colleague and companion, trusting and drawing trust from his fellows, free with his feelings and his strength. Ambivalence was not in his repertoire. A powerhouse in almost any context, he was happy to be the focal point of noise, action, laughter. In his company, Svensson began to find his own self-doubts retreating. An unexpected capacity for light-heartedness emerged, and he began to develop a role as willing straight man to Giannini’s boisterous comedian. It seemed as if the rocklike integrity of his partner gave Svensson the anchor he had needed to counter his uncertainties. Over the months and eventually years of their partnership, Svensson’s conscious gratitude was translated into a committed and absolute loyalty to his partner. In a less explicit way, Giannini was aware of this, and it became one more element of the solid structure of his world.

 

***

After a long pause, Giannini looked up again and scanned the room. ‘Where are those photos?’

‘Here.’ Walker got them out of the drawer and laid them on the desk. Drawing in a shuddering breath, Giannini again leafed through the pile, stopping at a close-up of Svensson’s face. He ran a finger gently over the sleek surface of the print, and began softly to speak.

‘We had a long weekend and Carlo had conned me into going camping. Not my kinda thing at all, but he always fancied himself the outdoor type. It was a bad idea. Nothing but bugs and rain and the tent blew down on the first night so we ended up sleeping in the car.’ Walker noticed for the first time his Boston accent. ‘Things didn’t get any better the second day and even Carlo stopped trying to pretend we were having fun. So we decided to head back to civilisation. Which would have been fine if the fucking deer hadn’t appeared out of nowhere…’

For a while he stopped speaking, as if his jaw could not move any more. His whole body was braced against some deep pressure.

To try and ease the tension, Walker asked, ‘who was driving?’

‘Me of course. It was my car…’

‘So you went off the road because you didn’t want to hit the deer?’

‘Oh I get it – you think I’m screwed up ’cause it was my fault we ended up rolling the car, my fault he’s dead? … Well, you’re wrong. It’s not some kind of guilt complex. He made us lose it, not me. I was just trying to slow down. He grabbed the wheel and pulled us over the edge … the stupid bastard. Why couldn’t he trust me?’

‘From what I’ve been told he trusted you plenty of times.’

‘What have you been told? That we were best buddies? We looked out for each other? Had each other’s back? That’s what I thought too.’

‘What changed? Just because he grabbed the wheel?’ Walker was sure this wasn’t it but he hoped Giannini would be driven to explain. But he just lowered his head to his hands.

‘I can’t do this now. I’m tired … I need to sleep.’

‘Sure. We can continue talking tomorrow if you want … whenever you’re ready.’

When Giannini had left the room, Walker looked through the photos again, looking for some sign of the bitterness he had heard in Giannini’s voice. He couldn’t find it. Nor could he find the photo Giannini had focused on.

In his cell-like room, Giannini lay face-down on the bed with the photo in his hand and tears soaking into the pillow.

Two days later Walker found Giannini waiting outside his room. He raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re eager today.’ Giannini shrugged and wheeled himself through the opening door. ‘So you’ve got something to say?’

‘You say you want to understand what happened that night? What changed?’ Giannini grimaced. ‘Ok, “padre”, hear my confession … and then you can tell me how I should feel.’

‘You know I can’t tell you that … but I’m listening.’ Giannini always wore a small suede pouch around his neck which he often touched, an unconscious self-comforting behaviour Walker had noted before, and he reached for it now.

‘Like I said, we had a long weekend and Carlo had dragged me on this dumb trip. I didn’t know why he’d been so pushy about it. I’d thought he’d gotten pissed off at me or something. He’d not been around so much for a while outside of work, always had something else to do, not like it used to be. Sometimes it felt like he didn’t even want to be in the same room with me. He’d made some crack about me being a pig, going on about political correctness – and not joking you know? I … But anyhow … we got to the site and put up the tent. And then the weather began to turn so there we were, sitting in this little wet tent with nothing to do but drink beer. And then he just announced this was a kind of farewell trip. He was gonna quit the police department. No explanation, just – I’m quitting. I didn’t know what to say to that.’

‘Were you angry with him?’

‘I guess so … but I couldn’t really believe it, you know? He’d always been there, nine years … so I just kept asking him – why?’

‘Did he explain?’

‘Not then, no. Oh he made up some stuff about getting too old for the life … I wasn’t buying that. I still thought it was about us – he’d had enough of me. But anyway then the weather really blew up and we had to deal with the tent collapsing on us.’ Giannini actually smiled at the memory and Walker got another glimpse of that other, gentler version of the man. ‘We ended up back in the car trying to get comfortable. It was like being on a stake-out or something. We had some stupid conversation about what he was gonna do next and how I was gonna get a gorgeous lady partner to replace him… All of it was bullshit. I began to think he was just conning me again like he always did. Turned out I was right.’ Giannini’s expression hardened again and Walker remembered the fury of the session a few days before.

***

 

Saturday night and for once, they had a weekend off. So naturally they were out on the town with their current girls, a new and casual partner in Svensson’s case, but Giannini actually seemed to be taking Jenny a bit more seriously. Not that that stopped him flirting with every pretty girl around. Karl found himself watching them, Jenny and Alex. Alex looked so happy, and so far away. When Jenny disappeared to the restroom, Karl had to remind himself to pay polite attention to Leanne. Leanne was not entirely fooled.

‘I don’t think you’ve got a hope there fella. Jenny’s really into him.’ And to herself, ‘can’t blame her…’

‘What…? No – I’m sorry. I’m just not with it tonight. Shall we get out of here? Do you want to go somewhere else?’

‘Never mind.’ She smiled pityingly. ‘I can take myself home.’

‘You been dumped pal?’ asked Alex, draping a tipsy arm round Karl’s shoulders and kissing him jokily on the temple. Jenny was laughing goodbye to Leanne on her way back to the booth.

‘I guess so,’ said Karl, trying not to move, not to break that tiny moment. But Jenny came back and reclaimed her place. ‘You guys want another drink?’ Karl muttered.

‘I wouldn’t say no,’ with a fake hiccup.

Svensson escaped to the bar and didn’t make much effort to catch the busy barman’s attention. But a skinny guy sitting at the bar caught his eye, ‘Looking for some company?’

‘No… just getting some drinks.’ And he ordered a couple of beers and a glass of red wine. The guy at the bar was looking back at Giannini and Jenny with an appraising eye.

‘So you’re the wallflower then? He looks pretty hot. Well and truly taken though. What do they say? All the best guys are straight?’ Drinks paid for, Svensson beat a retreat from the burst of sour laughter, hurrying back to the booth. Alex greeted him with one of those soft smiles Karl found so hard to bear, before turning to whisper into Jenny’s ear.

‘I’m splitting… Three’s a crowd huh?’ Karl stood up to go.

‘Don’t go, partner. The night is young and there are many lovelies out there.’ But Svensson shook his head.

‘G’night then … see you Monday.’ No one noticed the thin man leave his unfinished drink on the bar and follow Svensson out into the street.

 

***

‘So the next day you gave up on camping?’

‘Yeah … there didn’t seem to be anything to hang around for. So we packed up and headed down the mountain and then that bloody deer happened and things went even more to shit.’

‘You got yourselves out of the car though…’

‘There was gas everywhere – you could smell it – and I sure didn’t want to burn to death. Carlo was in a bad way, couldn’t move his legs, said he couldn’t feel them. I got us out somehow and dragged him far enough away from the car to be ok if it went up… God knows how much more damage I did him…  It was freezing though, with the wind and rain. Carlo began shaking with cold … So we were trying to keep each other warm, you know?’ Giannini stopped speaking and pulled out the photos again. Walker waited, trying not to do anything to disrupt him.

‘I think I fell asleep for a while. It was nearly dark … and then Carlo started to talk.’

Another long pause. Walker began to think that was all he was going to get this time, but then with a harsh intake of breath, Giannini began again. To Walker it seemed that in everything that followed Giannini had forgotten his presence; he was telling himself what had happened, remembering out loud, re-living it all clearly, perhaps for the first time.

‘He said he wasn’t going to make it this time. He knew there was too much broken and no one would be looking for us any time soon. I said you’re wrong, we’ll be ok like always. I’ve got a plan, I’ll torch the car when the rain stops and then we’ll be picked up and in the hospital in no time. But Carlo said, “No Al… Just the truth now. I’m not going anywhere.” And I know he’s right but I still keep on telling him how we’ll get out of here … he just waited for me to shut up…’

***

 

‘The truth. Al… I wanted to tell you the truth last night but I was too much of a coward. It doesn’t matter now.’

 

***

‘Doesn’t matter, he said!’ Giannini interrupted his own narrative, for a moment angry again. ‘As if it didn’t matter more then than it ever had…’

***

‘What doesn’t matter?’

‘The reason I was going to quit…’ Karl fell silent and for a moment there was just the sound of the persistent rain dripping through the trees.

‘And…?’ Alex nudged him gently to continue.

‘Will you do something for me?’

‘If I can. You know you never needed to ask.’

‘Forgive me?’

‘For wrecking my car? Never.’

‘No…no more jokes now Al… forgive me for being too scared to tell you before …forgive me for telling you now…’ even now the words did not come.

‘Telling me what? Why you’re quitting?’

‘Not just that …’ He fumbled in the dark to find Giannini’s hand, pulling it further into the pocket of warmth between them. ‘Why is it so hard to say? I … love you, Alex … and I couldn’t fake it anymore,’ Karl whispered. ‘Oh god… please…please…don’t hate me, Al. I’m sorry.’

‘How could I?’ With a warm hand on Karl’s cold cheek, Giannini reached up and lightly kissed him on the forehead.

‘Oh Alex… you…’ and Karl pulled him back down, until their cold lips met.

‘Ahh Carlo…’ And they had held on to each other in the dark, as if for dear life, as if to make up for all the time lost.

***

‘So he kissed you … and…?’ said Walker.

‘And how did that make me feel?’ asked Giannini savagely. ‘That’s what you shrinks want isn’t it? Well I liked it, ok? It was good. And I wanted more. God! In that moment all I wanted was more of him. And he was only going away from me.’ The grief and anger flooded out of him. ‘I wasn’t going to let him. I was going to get us out – I burnt the car. And all we had to do was stay alive till they came, that’s all… but he couldn’t do that little thing… He just stopped …’ With the unbearable words, tears were flowing freely down his face. A silence ticked by…

‘And so I waited … and it got very cold and he got colder and I got colder and it felt ok. It would have been ok.’

‘What would have been ok?’

Giannini looked at him as if it was obvious. ‘Dying.’

‘You might have. Do you wish you had?’

‘Yes!’

‘Why?’

‘Because there’s nothing left that makes any kind of sense! I thought I had a brother… But he was lying to me all those years … and then he gave me a glimpse of something that I didn’t know I wanted and took it straight away again…. And now… now I think I do hate him…’

‘Why?’ asked Walker, softly. Giannini glared at him, stopping his tears with anger.

‘Don’t you think I’ve got enough reasons? He took away my old life, my job, my partner, my fucking foot, for crying out loud!’ Walker looked sceptical. Giannini looked away again, his right hand reaching up to the cord around his neck, speaking once more as if to himself alone:

‘Why should I hate him? Because I still need him even though I don’t know who he was anymore, because he lied, because he left me alone, because he told me the truth … some weak part of me wishes I could forget it all, wishes he’d kept on lying till the end so I could go on being me…’ so quietly now Walker could barely hear it ‘… because some…vile…part of me is glad he didn’t make it back because I can’t imagine any way for us to be … because I don’t know who I am anymore…’

Minutes passed until he looked up at Walker again, exhausted, all anger spent. ‘He asked me to forgive him and I do, I have, but I need him to forgive me too. But he never can, can he?’

Walker took a deep breath as he searched for something to say to this.

‘I think perhaps you need to forgive yourself.’

‘That’s not how forgiveness works.’ Giannini turned his gaze away and his hands hung limp. Walker saw again the man he had met by the lake, utterly alone.

Drake: ‘Progress?’

‘I’m afraid I’ve just helped him prove to himself that he’s got nothing left to live for.’

‘Well done. Suicide watch?’

‘I think maybe so…’

That was Giannini’s last meeting with Walker. He had said all he had to say, all there was to say. But the clinic staff saw some signs of hope that he was finding a way back. He began to go out for walks in the grounds, using the crutches that he had ignored for so long. He seemed to be trying to wear himself out physically, though his nights were still restless and disturbed by dreams and flashbacks. The phantom pain continued, fuelling memories of the desperate hour it took to extricate himself from the crushing cage of pedals and metalwork.

Very rarely he wakes from a kinder dream – a vision of that unimaginable other life …

A white room, filled with light. Alex is sitting on the edge of a wide bed, looking at his foot on the floor. ‘Want a hand?’ He looks up at the tall unblemished figure, holding out a hand to him. Reaching up, he grasps the hand with both of his, but instead of standing, he leans back and twists. Karl is pulled off balance and lands, laughing, stretched out on his back beside him. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Bringing you down to my level… Come here…’

… but when the vision fades, his anger with Svensson returns. Why couldn’t he have told the truth long ago? He’d asked that question during the long night in the woods. And Karl had confessed his fear that Giannini would be disgusted, repelled…

‘So I kept my secret and I made do …’

‘Made do?’

‘Made do with “best buddies” and horseplay and pretending with all those girls … made do with strangers in the night … of course you would have been disgusted with me. I am!’

‘No Carlo … you should have trusted me … I would have understood. You’re my best friend…’

‘Listen to yourself, Al, and think about it… I don’t think you would have heard me.’

***

A late night conversation – truth and consequences.

‘Did you see that new girl in the bar tonight Carlo? What a pair of legs!’

‘You know Al, you really are a chauvinist pig. Has it ever occurred to you that a woman might be more than a body? A person, a friend, a partner?’

‘Why would I want that when I’ve got you, old buddy?’ said Giannini in his usual laidback teasing tone.

‘No, I’m serious here. Can’t you imagine wanting sex and friendship in the same place?’

‘I guess one day I’ll settle down and do that stuff, kids and all,’ another wide grin, ‘a son called Carlo maybe…  but hey, there’s no harm in having fun in the meantime is there? Are you telling me you’re leaving me for a lovely girl?’

‘Ach! There’s no talking to you is there?’

***

 

Another night shift. Dawdling down the familiar streets waiting for something or nothing to happen. It was usually something and this night it was a ‘shots fired’ callout. They arrived at the scene at the same time as a black and white patrol car. A kid was standing in the street screaming – ‘they’re over there! Over there!’ Pointing at a car rammed into the wall. Another kid was lying in the street, unmoving. ‘Another drive by?’ Giannini looked at Svensson and they cautiously approached the crashed car. ‘Not much of the “by” … looks like they’ve done our job for us,’ said Svensson. In the car the driver was draped over the wheel, apparently unconscious, and the passenger looked almost out of it, drugged or concussed.

‘Police! Throw out your weapons!’ yelled Giannini. Two guns skittered across the tarmac. Svensson kept his eyes and gun on the car as Giannini stepped carefully forward to open the near door. But then several things happened at once. Svensson registered a movement from the back seat, there was a shot and Giannini fell to the ground.

‘No!’ yelled Svensson.  The sound and sight of it hit him like a kick in the chest as he ran forward and dropped to Giannini’s side. ‘Al! You ok?’ A dark figure ran past them and was tackled by the uniformed officers. ‘Get an ambulance!’ Alex didn’t look good, Svensson thought. He hadn’t given the usual prayed-for reply. How many times had he lived through this fear? So many near misses… and they would joke about it like it didn’t matter, like lucky charms really worked. But then Giannini spoke.

 

‘You ok, Carlo? I think they got a bit of me this time.’ And his hand reached out. Karl squeezed it hard, and managed to respond.

‘You’ll be fine – just another scar to impress the ladies with.’ And Al’s face twisted in a kind of grin. As Svensson smiled back, relief washing through him, he found himself thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ But he doubted he would ever have the strength to cut himself adrift.

***

Adjacent to the hospital grounds were open fields. Giannini’s walks often took him down there where horses grazed, and sometimes in their company he began to feel a little peace.

Another case conference.

‘Any change with Giannini?’ Walker asked one of the nurses who’d been keeping an eye on him.

‘He’s still hardly talking – gone back into his shell I’m afraid.’ Nurse James blushed a little at the memory of her attempts to engage with him. ‘But he seems to like being around the horses.’

‘Now that’s an idea – let’s have a word with the livery yard, see if we can get him some more time with them. He doesn’t need to talk with a horse…’

And later still.

‘So I heard Giannini has asked for an appointment with prosthetics.’

‘He has? That’s great!’

So the weeks went. Giannini still rejected any talking therapy but began to spend all the hours he could at the stables, a quiet presence, filling buckets, grooming, mucking out. While in the company of horses it seemed that his mind was filled up with something else, a hint of that wholeness he had once had – a blessed relief from the consuming emotions and obsessive thoughts that had filled his days and still filled his dreams.

And a day came when the hospital agreed to let him go. The livery owner had suggested he might find work somewhere similar and a place was found at a stableyard out near the state park. ‘Not the best location,’ thought Walker. But Giannini seemed content with the arrangement.

‘A success story then, Walker. Well done, I never thought you’d do it,’ said Drake as they watched him go. And so it seemed – follow-ups and checks with his employers were all promising. Giannini was now a competent rider, in spite of the artificial foot, and a steady if uncommunicative and solitary employee.

18 months later, Walker spotted a minor news item in the local paper.

‘Inquest verdict on body recovered from state park: suicide. – The body of ex-detective Alessandro Giannini (38) was discovered in the woods off Rte 123 two weeks ago, cause of death a single gunshot to the head. Ballistics report states that only one bullet had been fired from an otherwise empty gun. The case is now closed. The police had no further comment on the sad loss of another of their colleagues. (Giannini’s partner Karl Svensson died 3 years ago in a traffic accident.)’

Jesus! We shouldn’t have left it like this, Walker thought. Let him cut himself off again. Too bloody willing to pretend we’d fixed him. If only…

***

 

At the end of a long and somewhat drunken night, slumped on a sofa in Giannini’s apartment, Karl raised his glass. ‘Well, we made it this far, partner. Here’s to another five years.’ Alex acknowledged the toast and then, a little sheepishly, pulled something out of his pocket.

‘I got us an anniversary gift…’

Raising his eyebrows, Karl took the small pouch hanging on a cord, and opened it. ‘A bullet…?’

‘Yeah…er … I got one for me too…’ pulling an identical pouch out from inside his shirt. ‘See … I had this thought … you know they say we’ve all got a bullet out there with our name on it? Well, I thought if you had the one with my name on it and I had yours, we’d be ok. Stupid, I know, but once I had the idea it felt like I had to do it.’ Karl peered at the bullet in his hand and made out the fine engraving: ‘Alex Giannini’.

‘Ok… you’re a superstitious idiot but … ok.’

***

Knowing it could not assuage his sense of guilt, Walker went to the stableyard, looking for an account of Giannini’s time there. The stable boss was sombre, leaning into the ugly old gelding he’d been grooming.

‘Alex had been riding up into the woods quite a lot lately. Staying out overnight sometimes. I thought he was turning into a bit of a mountain man. He seemed settled, calm, you know? You couldn’t call it happy, but accepting … he and Toby here made a good team.’

‘D’you think he’d been working himself up to it then? Going out there so many times?’

There was a long pause. The old horseman looked up towards the hills. He watched two broad-winged birds in the far sky, drifting in slow spirals higher and higher, their sharp calls dropping like pine needles to the forest floor.

‘Working himself up to it…? No… I think he’d made his decision a long time ago. … I think … he was just making sure Toby would know the way home.’

***

 

Epilogue: Karl’s dream

 

A white room, filled with light. Karl looks down at Alex, sitting on the edge of a wide bed, looking at his feet on the floor. ‘Want a hand?’ Alex looks up at Karl’s offered hand. Reaching up, he grasps it with both of his, but instead of standing, he leans back and twists. Karl is pulled off balance and lands, laughing, stretched out on his back beside him. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Bringing you down to my level… Come here…’

 

But Karl doesn’t move and Alex rolls on to his side to look at Karl’s face, the eyes moving under closed lids. He reaches a hand up and softly runs a finger across Karl’s lips. Karl turns his head and opens his eyes, lifting his own hand to brush his knuckles over Alex’s cheek and jaw. They stay for a moment, poised, eyes exploring the tiny details of each other’s face. Then Karl whispers, ‘I have so longed…’ and, turning his body towards Alex, he kisses the fragile skin below his eyes. Retreating again to look, he laughs and says, ‘I love your face.’ A tear brims over. Alex touches Karl’s wet cheek, the corner of his jaw. His fingers follow the long neck muscle down from jaw to throat. ‘Teach me.’ Then hands find flesh, taut tendons, muscles flex and grip, entwined, engulfed. Whose limbs, whose hands, whose sublimation?… It is all one, until they lie still again, coiled in deep lassitude, still but for a lift and fall of breath, and a murmur: ‘Love, let this be true…’

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Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

 

Home Truths

It was one of the odder cases they’d had to deal with. None of the usual suspects or victims, low lifes living on the edge, addicts and bums. This was off their beaten track, in a pleasant apartment, among orderly folk. At first sight it looked like a minor domestic – not so unusual in any neighbourhood – but when injury led to death and the complicated story came to light, a stranger shape appeared.

 

Alex Giannini and Karl Svensson had been seconded to a different precinct for a while, to make up the numbers for a flu-ridden department, so they already felt unfamiliar with the upmarket area. To make it worse, their temporary boss had demanded that they ‘smarten up! You’re not in the ghetto now.’ Alex in particular found the buttoned up shirt and tie around his neck hard to get used to. He ran two fingers round his collar and then brushed his hand through his short, dark hair, to smooth its curls.

‘Stop fidgeting. You’re like a kid on his first day at school,’ said Karl.

‘Sorry, Mom.’ Alex laughed under his breath. ‘Thank god we don’t have to do this every day. Tell me again why they didn’t send a woman officer along?’

‘Because they’re all off sick of course, like half the squad. Let’s get it over with. After you.’

‘Thanks for nothing.’ Alex straightened his tie and his face before knocking on the door of the apartment.

 

The middle-aged woman who opened the door was disheveled and distressed. ‘What’s happened?’ she asked, even before they had time to show their ID.

‘Can we come in? It’s very bad news, I’m afraid.’ She let them into an airy living room, now littered with half empty coffee cups, discarded clothing and screwed up tissues.

‘Sit down,’ she said, making an effort to play the hostess.

‘You first,’ said Giannini, urging her to the only uncluttered chair. He crouched down in front of her, saying, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your husband died this morning.’

A wordless sound escaped her and then she pressed her hands to her mouth to hold it in.

‘And there’s more …’ Alex paused, frowning, and looked up at Karl for help.

‘What is it?’ She looked anxiously back and forth between them. What more could there be?

Karl told her the rest while Alex tried to provide some kind of comfort. ‘Because of the circumstances we have to take you in for questioning – the doctors have confirmed that his death resulted from the incident here last week. That means it has to be treated as a possible homicide.’

‘But he didn’t blame me! He said so – he wouldn’t…’

‘Yes, we know he didn’t press charges, but that doesn’t change the fact that his fall down the stairs happened while you and he were physically fighting. It’s not just between you and him anymore – it’s a matter for the law now, which means we have to ask you to come with us and make a statement about what happened.’ They thought they knew what her statement would amount to: self-defense against an abusive husband – a victim turning on her tormenter at last. They had seen it often enough and been amazed at how long some women would endure mistreatment, how they could still claim to love their abusers.

 

But this time they were wrong.

 

‘Can I see him first? At the hospital? Please?’

‘I guess so,’ said Alex. ‘There’d be no harm in that would there, Carlo?’

So they found themselves witnessing her farewell. The body was laid out in the chilly morgue, with little sign of the fatal injury beyond a bruise on the temple and a healing scratch on the cheek. She found his hand and held it tight, then bent to kiss him gently on the lips.

‘I’m so sorry, Jonathan,’ she whispered. ‘What a bloody mess we made of everything.’

After a few minutes, she laid his hand down on his chest and turned away, looking calmer than they’d seen her.

‘Shall we go then?’

 

Some time later in an interview room, they started the tape to record her statement:

 

‘We already know you and Jonathan had a serious argument last Thursday that led to him falling down the stairs and suffering the concussion that eventually killed him. What was the fight about?’

‘A lot of things. Where do you want me to start?’ She suddenly looked too tired for this and Alex had to remind himself that she was not just a bereaved wife but a possible murderer.

‘Why don’t you start by telling us what happened that day?’

‘I’d been to the doctor in the morning…’

‘What for?’

‘A pregnancy test – it was positive.’

‘Oh…’ Alex and Karl exchanged a glance – they were both surprised, she didn’t look like a woman expecting a first child. ‘Was that good news?’

‘For me, yes. For Jonathan, no.’

‘So were you arguing about that?’

‘You could say so – and some other stuff.’

She remembered the conversation vividly but it was too hard to repeat in this strange place to these young men who knew nothing about her life, however gentle they tried to be.

‘I’m really tired – do we have to do this now? I’m not going anywhere… and neither is Jonathan. Tomorrow I’ll tell you everything, from the very beginning, if need be.’

‘You’ll have to stay in custody tonight then. Are you sure about that?’

She nodded and they reluctantly agreed to wait until the next day to continue.

 

Over a beer that evening Alex and Karl mulled over the case. ‘What do you reckon? An affair – someone else’s baby? He finds out and goes crazy so she shoves him down the stairs to save her neck – and the kid’s.’

‘Maybe – but he seems to have been pretty forgiving in that case. No charges, went back home to kiss and make up.’

‘Maybe it’s kinda the other way round – she’s expecting someone else’s kid, she wants to leave but he won’t let her go. She thumps him but he plays the forgiveness card to hold on to her – or maybe threatens her: “if you leave me I’ll accuse you of assault and you’ll have the baby in prison” – lucky for her he keels over a few days later.’

‘That’s a nasty thought, Al. I thought you felt sorry for the woman.’

‘I do, I do – I’m just trying to treat it like a regular case. Let’s wait and see what she has to say in the morning.’

 

She looked at least as tired the next day but she sat up straight in the interview room and started to talk as soon as they set the tape rolling.

‘I’ve been thinking all night and I want to tell you the whole story – it might take a while.’ She composed herself, took a breath, and then began.

‘I met Jonathan when I was 18. He was lovely, a few years older than me, handsome and kind. I felt at home with him straight away. People were always saying we made the perfect couple. It was love at first sight, I guess – and we got married really soon. My mum and dad didn’t like that much. They thought I was too young, but they came round. They could see he was a good husband to me.’

She took a sip of water, then went on.

‘We’d been married for a couple of years when I got pregnant. Jonathan was a bit funny about it but I thought he was just nervous about becoming a dad, and he was really protective. Hovered over me like a mother hen. But the baby died before she was born – yeah I know it’s sad, but it’s a long time ago now. I had plenty of time to get over it…’ But she was crying as she spoke, apparently unaware of the tears.

‘We kept trying for another baby but it never happened, and so we kind of gave up on it and settled down to enjoy life together as best we could. And it was fine, better than fine, for a good few years.’

She paused and smiled a little. ‘You guys married?’

‘No, not yet,’ said Alex. ‘Still playing the field.’ He winked at Karl, who was leaning against the wall by the door, saying nothing.

‘It’s ok, you know, if you don’t screw it up like we did. … Anyway time passed and, you know, hormones mess you up. I began to think about the baby a lot and talked to Jon about adopting – I knew we’d never have one of our own…’

‘What did he say to that?’

‘He didn’t like the idea. It took a while, but eventually he told me why he was against it. He’d been adopted himself, when he was five, and it wasn’t good. He’d ended up in care until he was 16, and then thrown out into the world to fend for himself. I didn’t know why he hadn’t told me before, but I tried to understand. It was hard though and I still wanted a kid – we struggled then. We stopped talking, stopped being a proper couple I guess, anywhere outside of the bedroom. I never stopped loving him though, you know? But then I did the stupidest thing, the thing that makes it my fault too – I slept with another man – nothing serious. I told myself it was a harmless fling – other people do it all the time. But it made it even harder to face Jonathan… and then I found out I was pregnant.’

She stopped herself, looking up at them.

‘I’m pregnant! Still – how is that possible after all this?… I was so happy when the doctor said my test was positive – I convinced myself it was Jonathan’s even though…’

‘But Jonathan wasn’t so happy, you said.’

‘No – because he knew, you see, it couldn’t be his.’

‘How did he know? You thought it might be possible.’

‘Because after we lost the baby all that time ago he had a vasectomy. I didn’t know anything about it until last Thursday…he never told me – any of it – until then.’

‘Any of what?’

‘I really didn’t have any idea, you must believe me.’

‘Believe what? What did he tell you?’ She took a while to answer, looking down at her hands, which were clenched so tight they shook.

‘He was my brother.’ A long moment passed before she spoke again, but the rest came more easily.

‘I hadn’t even known I was adopted, you see. My parents never said anything – I was a baby when they took me and they thought I’d never need to know. Jonathan tracked me down – he was desperate for some kind of family. How could he know we’d fall in love?…and when we did he couldn’t give it up. He knew when the baby died it was his fault – so he made sure it couldn’t happen again. But I think it wore him down, the lie, such a huge lie. That’s what came between us, before I even knew.’

‘So… all this came out last week when you told him you were pregnant?’

‘Yes…it was like some kind of explosion – everything dragged out into the open all at once – he was furious about the baby, otherwise I don’t think he’d ever have let it out … and then I was crazy too, angry about everything, with my parents, and with him, mostly with him, for all the lies… and then we ran out of words to throw at each other and started …’ She stopped speaking, and looked down at her clenched fists, then slowly opened them and wiped her wet cheeks.

‘But it wasn’t just his lie, was it? – There was mine too, the one I was prepared to live by. This baby… if I could, I would have lied to all of us, to myself, to Jonathan, and this child, all its life, and pretended it was ours.’

 

They stopped the tape then. It felt like more than enough truth for one woman and her child to live with.

‘What do you think will happen with her?’ Alex asked Karl, later, as they were finishing up the paperwork for the day. ‘Will they call it accidental death and leave her alone?’

‘I hope so.’

‘All those lies…what a fucked up life.’

‘But he loved her, he did his best. Truth isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be – the lies were the only way they could be together.’

‘Does that make it ok? She was his sister!’ There was a twist of disgust on Alex’s face.

‘And she loved him, and she killed him, accident or no. I don’t know what’s ok… it’s not ours to say anyway, thank god…’ Karl said, leaning back from his typewriter.

‘You don’t think we’re being fooled, do you? It could be all a smoke screen. She didn’t have anything to say yesterday and now all this. She might have been up all night concocting it. And anyway it doesn’t really tell us any more about what happened that night … even if it’s all true…’

‘True? If it came to trial you know it’s not about what’s true, it’s about what’s provable, and with no other witnesses any defense lawyer worth his salt could sow a reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds…’

‘Don’t tell me you’re losing your faith in truth, justice and the American way…’ Alex said, drily. Karl raised a quick eyebrow at him, with a suppressed breath of ironic laughter.

‘Whatever, I think she’s for real – why bother to make up a tale like that? It gives her just as much of a potential motive as any of the things we came up with. But, did she tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? No – she only gave us the bare bones. And there’s more to a body than the skeleton … clothes can tell you more about a person than bare skin…Their lives were hung on a lie, but the rest, the flesh of it – might have been as real as anyone’s.’

‘Whoa, there, Carlo. I think we’d better get out of here before you decide to retire to a garret to write poetry.’ He stood up and stretched, then offered a hand to Karl, slumped low in his chair. ‘You look beat and I don’t want to think about this mess anymore – truths and lies and moral ambiguity. Give me a nice straightforward drug bust any day.’ Karl allowed himself to be hauled up from his chair, and rolled his stiff shoulders, while he waited for Al to tie up a shoe lace.

‘Time for a beer?’ asked Karl.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

 

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Fragment

The old woman sits in the desert, quiet, still. You think she has not heard your question. Your lips are parted to ask it again, when she speaks. ‘“What do I know?” Why? What should I know?’ She pauses and you must wait. ‘Here is what I know: I am old. I am a woman. I am an old woman, sitting in the desert. That’s all.’ She smiles lightly and briefly meets your eye, then looks past you, out to the hazy distance. It has not rained here for ten years.

You search for another, a better question. ‘What brought you here?’ Another long pause before she answers. ‘Life… Death… Hope… Fear… A bus.’ She laughs to herself. ‘All your questions will have the same answers, my dear.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Life, death, hope, fear, a bus. Now be quiet and listen.’

‘What am I listening to?’ But she does not speak again. She shakes her head and touches her lumpy finger to her lips, then looks away. The sound of wind, ever-present, fills the silence.

After some unmeasured time the light has changed; the sun, near set, picks out every stone with long fingers. The woman leans forward, hands on knees, gradually unfolding herself, to stand, still bent, and walk slowly into her small cabin, its bright blue paint now faded and peeling to a dusky, dusty camouflage. Away in the shadow of the far hills, headlights briefly draw the line of a road and then disappear.

You sit, still waiting for understanding, as the stars appear and a faint dew forms, distilled from a distant sea.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

The Patient Man – a short story

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He pulled the boat ashore on the small green island, dragging it up the gravelly beach into undergrowth and covering it so that it was invisible from the lake. It was many years since he had been there but nothing seemed to have changed. He made his way through the trees, up and over the crest of the island and down into a sheltered valley where a stone bothy emerged from the rowan trees. From the valley there was a narrow view to the seaward end of the loch. It was a perfect place to hide from the world and over the years it had been used by hermits and refugees, from wars and wives, looking for a quiet life. The loch was full of fish and its shores of rabbits and summer raspberries.

This new refugee had come a long way to find the place again, a place he had known once as a backdrop to youthful fantasies. Here he had been a hero: a knight, a brave, a pirate. Now he was none of those things, but it felt like home. He pulled open the warped door and looked in. There was a drift of dry leaves on the floor and a damp patch where the roof let in a shaft of pale sun. Better get that fixed, he thought. It was in better condition than he had expected though. It didn’t take long to sweep the floor with a bit of brushwood, which then served as kindling for a small fire to take off the edge of damp.

By the time the sun was setting he had settled himself and his few belongings comfortably into the bothy. He lay looking out towards the glowing western sky, and sleep rose up to claim his weariness.

He woke long after dawn from a profound and dreamless sleep. In spite of an inadequate bed, he felt more rested than he could remember; there would be no demands made of him today. He stretched luxuriously and walked down to the water’s edge, looking across the still surface of the loch and filling his lungs with cool air. Suddenly he laughed out loud. Stripping off his clothes, he plunged into the water and swam strongly away from the shore.

 

The locals soon became aware that someone was staying on the island. Rumours trickled along the narrow roads. Dour old men shook their heads and looked for reasons to disapprove. ‘Who is he? What’s he doing here?’ ‘Must be something odd there.’ ‘Probably hiding from the law.’ The lack of real information encouraged increasingly wild speculations. The only person who had actually spoken to him was the proprietor of the village post office. She kept what little knowledge she had to herself, maintaining her pose of professional confidentiality and enjoying the small sense of importance it conferred. But she knew that he was paying rent to the laird who owned the island, and he had collected several weighty parcels that had arrived at the post office, addressed to Jack Winter. He had a battered old car that lived by the jetty, but rarely went anywhere. He spoke little when he came into the post office and seemed content to remain a mysterious stranger. If he was aware of the speculation about his presence and his past, he showed no sign of it.

 

On the island, Jack spent the first few days rediscovering his little kingdom. It was nearly forty years since he had last been there, but he could still identify the great tree which had been his lookout post, and the rocky cove which his imagination had populated with one-legged sailors or wild children eating pemmican and squashed fly biscuits, depending on what book he was living in at the time. His family had found the place as an ideal summer holiday when he was very small and they came back year after year. It felt like a truer home than the suburban semi that was officially ‘home’. As Jack grew from toddler to adventurer he acquired a younger brother and sister, who followed him when they could, eagerly playing supporting roles in his exploits. He was their captain, and their defender and comforter when the adventures led to accidents or irate parents.

The last holiday had been the best. His siblings were old enough to be allowed out in the little rowing boat without a grown-up, and their adventures expanded into new realms. It was a glorious summer with long days of sun and everywhere seemed to welcome them. They stayed for an extra week – an unprecedented change of routine. Long after, Jack would remember that time as an unbelievable idyll – it remained a vision of freedom and escape which seemed to become more and more inaccessible as life wound itself around him.

 

They had gone ‘home’ and returned to the humdrumness of school and work. But then everything in Jack’s life had changed. One day he had slouched up the road from the bus stop, dragging his school bag along, with a gang of dishevelled schoolmates, and, going into his gate and round to the back door, had found his mother standing in the garden, a dead cigarette in one raised hand, the other arm folded tightly across her ribs, as if holding herself together. ‘Mum?’ She had turned to face him, and crumpled into childlike tears. ‘Oh Jack! What are we going to do? Your dad’s gone…’ And she had held on to him desperately, as if he was the grown-up who could make everything better.

He was only thirteen then but very quickly he grew into his new role. To his brother and sister it seemed completely natural that Jack would be in charge of things. His mother took his competence for granted too, and it allowed her to retreat further and further into her sadness. When his teachers asked how things were at home, he said ‘Fine,’ and they were impressed by this quiet boy’s maturity and dedication to his family. Options time came round and, to the music teacher’s regret, Jack chose ‘sensible’, vocational courses. He left school at sixteen and got an apprenticeship with an electrician, adding a little to his mother’s small income, while his brother and sister pursued their own ambitions.

In time they left home, escaping to universities in distant cities to study languages or history. Their lives expanded to encompass many friends and some lovers, eventually partners and children. But Jack was always there in the background, called upon when crises struck, when relationships foundered or jobs were lost. He was the one his sister came to when she miscarried an unplanned pregnancy, confused and distraught in her unexpected grief. He was the one his brother came to for advice about girls or money.

When his siblings eventually grew out of him, becoming wiser and finding permanent partners, their place in his life was taken by their own children. His nieces and nephews looked forward to visiting Grandma and Uncle Jack, where there would be patient indulgence and adventures in the woods.

Through all these years there was his mother, for whom he was a constant support. Her friends would say, ‘You’re so lucky to have Jack!’ She knew they were right and she tried to give something back in gratitude and love. Some of them thought, but didn’t say, ‘what a waste’, as they remembered the bright, singing child, and watched the grown man fading with the years, making them cups of tea and hanging his work clothes to dry in the back garden.

There were few lovers in Jack’s life and none that lasted long. They were attracted to this ‘strong silent type’, but he seemed too involved with his family for there to be room for another real relationship. They quickly realised he would not be able to put them at the centre of his life, however much he might have wished it. So they moved on. A few perceptive friends sensed a hidden inner world in his silences, a world that absorbed what was left of his energy and time.

That little left grew smaller as his mother aged. Her demands became more needy as her voice became vaguer. One day, he came home from work to find her sitting on the floor in the living room making a precarious tower with coal from the scuttle. She looked up and said, ‘Hello, daddy. Do you like the house I’ve built?’

The dementia diagnosis took some months to be confirmed, but her decline was swift. In her moments of lucidity Jack saw the loving and grateful mother he had cared for unquestioningly for years, but those moments became more fleeting and infrequent. He gave up his job to look after her full-time, and his world narrowed.

Visits from his nieces and nephews were rare now as they grew older and found grandma’s strangenesses hard to cope with. His brother and sister still came to the old house from time to time, but they felt more guilt than anything, faced with an altered mother and a brother who seemed to have given his life away, enabling them to live theirs.

Then one day, they both received a letter from Jack. ‘Mum doesn’t know me anymore. The social workers say she needs to go into a nursing home now, so that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to visit her you can. I’m selling the house. I’ll send you both your shares. I’m going away. Be well. Love, Jack’

 

Jack had been settled in on the island for a few months before anyone ventured into his domain. He was taking his now regular morning swim in the loch when he noticed a small figure spidering across the rocks at the far end of the island. He swam further out to avoid any meeting and only when the boy had disappeared around the headland did he return to the shore. The boy had noticed the swimmer but he was not inclined to make contact either. He was enjoying this exciting, almost empty, place and wanted to carry on as if it was his alone. For a while the two of them sustained this mutual pact of invisibility. Sometimes, when he caught a vanishing glimpse of the boy through trees, Jack felt that he was sharing the island with a ghost of his own youth.

The boy and his mother were staying in the village for the long summer holiday, and she had heard a few of the rumours about the stranger on the island. The post mistress had tapped the side of her nose and a man in the pub had warned her gloomily to keep an eye on her boy. She knew the power of gossip in a small community though, and took little notice. Peter had told her about the man who always kept his distance, so she just told the boy to be careful and to respect his privacy.

So things remained for a couple of weeks, the boy rowing out in his little inflatable and exploring the parts of the island furthest from the bothy and ‘the swimmer’s beach’, as he thought of it. Jack recognised and was grateful for the boy’s reticence. It was on a particularly dazzling evening that they broke this pattern. Jack had built a fire on the beach and was cooking sausages. The delicious smell drifted through the trees and Peter couldn’t resist. Jack had seen him already and had decided that it would do no harm to share the sausages if he approached. They sat quietly eating together, asking no questions, and when the food was all gone, Peter got up, said thanks, and went back to his boat to go home before the sun set.

A new pattern formed. They still mostly left each other to their own devices but every day or two Jack would find he had company for dinner. They would talk shyly, about the island and the things the boy found there, interesting rocks or beetles, or the birds who sailed overhead. Jack came to look forward to his visits, as a distraction from the work that occupied most of his time. It allowed him the distance he needed for ideas to settle in or to prove themselves worthless. Peter too looked forward to their meetings, for the food of course, but also for the company of this patient man. He had never known a grown-up who seemed to have so much time to listen to him without pushing in with questions about things that didn’t matter. It felt like talking to another boy sometimes, but a boy with no agenda of his own, just a calm and thoughtful person who would hear him out. Jack often seemed to understand Peter’s meaning before he did himself, and it gave Peter a sense of the worth of his own ideas that was new and thrilling. Peter was careful though, not to overstay his welcome. Sometimes he felt as if, in befriending this quiet man, he’d tamed a wild thing, a solitary creature that might leap away if he came too close. He didn’t tell his mother much about their conversations. He wanted to keep them to himself, aware perhaps that exposure can damage fragile things.

 

Towards the end of August a few days passed with no visit from Peter. Jack wondered if he had gone home, but when he went ashore to get supplies and pay his rent the post mistress was full of the news that that boy Peter had fallen out of a tall tree and was in hospital. Amazing, he’d only broken his leg! Lucky beggar. Jack said nothing but took note, and decided a trip to town would not be unreasonable. It was a bit of a struggle getting the old car started, but in a couple of hours he was looking for a parking space at the hospital.

A little later he had nearly given up on seeing Peter. The hospital staff were adamant that random strangers would not be allowed in to see children. As he was slowly heading back to the car park though, a voice came from behind him, ‘Are you Jack?’ He turned round to see who had called his name. It was a woman, looking a little flustered, but smiling. He acknowledged his name and said, ‘You must be Peter’s mother? How is he?’

‘He’ll be fine, stupid boy. Just a greenstick fracture and a cast for a few weeks. Cunning timing – he’s supposed to go back to school next week.’ She grinned with relief. ‘Come and say hello. He’d like that.’

 

‘So you climbed a tree…?’

‘Yes! It was great! I could see for miles. And I got almost all the way back down before I slipped.’

‘Good,’ Jack smiled.

‘Can we come back again next year, Mum?’

‘We’ll see…’

‘Aww, Mum!’

‘We’ll see! But I can’t see why not right now – as long as you promise not to fall out of any more trees.’

‘You could stay on the island if…’ Jack said, surprising himself.

‘Oh yes, Mum! Can we?’

 

When Peter and his mum arrived at the beginning of the next summer holidays things on the island had changed somewhat. The money from the sale of the house had come through and Jack had bought the bothy and extended it a little, installing a small wind turbine. The prevailing westerlies supplied enough power for his minimal needs. He still lived in almost preindustrial simplicity except for a couple of pieces of 21st century electronics, which had aroused great curiosity at the post office when they were delivered.

Peter was a bit disappointed at these changes but cheered up when he was reassured that he would still be sleeping under canvas, not in the enlarged bothy. They pitched the two one-man tents out of sight of the bothy so that he could pretend to be an intrepid explorer far from civilisation, at least some of the time. And so began the summer that for Peter would be his own dreamtime, a store of shining images he would preserve in memory all his life.

The three of them soon fell into a kind of slow, wide dance, coming and going in their separate orbits, joining hands at meals by the evening fire. They were all three inclined to solitariness, valuing their own space and time, but to be able to leaven that solitude with undemanding company was a pleasure too. And gradually they let each other into their private worlds, sharing bits of the past in rambling conversations through the long northern dusk.

Kate told Jack of her family, of her mother, who had so absorbed herself into her love of her husband that, on his death, her will had run out like sand in an hourglass and she had survived him by only three months. This had stood as a warning for Kate, and when she found herself expecting a child she had had no desire to bond herself to its father. He was a footloose, feckless friend, and she only occasionally felt a sliver of guilt that he did not know he was a father. Peter grew up as happy as any of his friends, secure in her love, and protected from the traumas of family collapse that fell upon some among his schoolmates.

And when Kate saw her son with this solid man, she felt herself vindicated. In Jack he found a playmate, older brother, wise uncle all in one. I was right, she thought. Peter’s father could never have given him all that. She watched Jack’s agile hands as he taught Peter to tie interesting knots with curious names, and listened to the music of their quiet, absorbed conversations, Jack’s resonant voice a low undercurrent to Peter’s light wandering descant.

Jack let Kate in more slowly. She learned a little of his family, and his care of them, and wondered how he had stayed so strong for them all. One evening she asked, ‘What kept you going? I couldn’t have done that, all alone.’

He looked up from the little fire, its flames sparking in his eyes and said, ‘Music.’

‘Oh!’ She was taken by surprise – he seemed to live as close to silence as he could. ‘But now…?’ She looked around them as if to say, where is the music here?

‘Come.’ He stood up and walked to the bothy, knowing she would follow. In the new room at the back, which had been out of bounds to her and Peter, he showed her where the music lived: a keyboard with headphones plugged into it, a guitar and a pc, as well as shelves piled with manuscript paper. Handwritten scores were pinned to the walls, scribbled on and rewritten till some were almost illegible.

‘It’s much easier now that I’ve got the equipment,’ he said.

Kate watched him as he looked around at his own work. She could almost see him beginning to be sucked into it, and she knew she must not ask any more. He wasn’t ready yet.

The summer days drifted by, and now Jack sometimes unplugged his headphones so they could hear bits of melody through the trees. In the evenings by the fire he might play and sing a little, old songs, not his own, but in a voice as strong and many-stranded as twisted rope, as strong as the muscles that moved in his arms as he played.

 

And in the glimmering dark of a short northern night, when she first came to his bed, it was a meeting of minds and bodies, a grace, a benediction.

 

Their lives from then on formed a cycle of distance and intimacy. Kate’s colleagues in the staff room teased her about the mystery man of her summers. The locals around the loch forgot their speculations and Jack was just the island man with his summer wife. He went away from time to time for brief visits with Kate or to see a publisher in the city, but always returned gladly to his private realm, to morning swims and sunsets filled with silence.

 

A few years later, his brother and sister, who had never managed to track him down (perhaps they had not tried too hard), received invitations to the premiere performance of a new work, Island Songs, by a hitherto unknown composer, Jack Winter. They were amazed when they walked into the foyer of the concert hall to see him standing, tall and quiet as ever, beside a handsome woman and an excited teenage boy. And his joyful smile when he caught sight of them took away all their guilt.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

The long walkers

A very short story:

None of them knew how long they had been walkers. Once there had been a librarian who walked with them, pushing his rickety handcart, full of its accumulation of little books called ‘diaries’, ‘calendars’, knotted string and notched sticks, piled on top of the even older volumes saved from the time before. He had tried so hard to keep a record of the days, by whatever means available, as the world changed.

He would read to them in the long evenings, myths and stories, songs and incantations, random fragments from their past. They called out for their favourites – ‘we want Riddles in the Dark, we want St Crispin’s Day! We want Closing-down sale.’ They liked the rhythms of the orphaned words, whose faded, floating meanings evoked long lost magics: ‘refrigerator’, ‘television’, ‘discount’, ‘door’.

They had buried him in the end, along with his cart, as it was ‘not to be removed from Sainsbury’s’.* And no one else could see the point of dragging the awkward thing around, full of useless objects. They had left the once-smooth roads long since, as the tarmac turned to potholes and the places the roads took them were emptied of scavenge-able stuff or disappeared under rising waters.

They marked the grave with a cairn and carved his symbol on an ancient tree nearby. They thought he would have wanted that. A song was written to remember Sainsbury and his place. Those were the best-kept records now, songs and skills, repeated, stored in minds and bodies, in rituals. But even they could be corrupted, and Sainsbury’s song named no place they could find again, if they had wanted to. Ancient trees will fall, with wind and winters; cairns subside.

The brief span of linear time was ended, that age of progress, of permanent change, of growth and destruction, of borders and wars, of history. The world returned to its eternal circling, summers come and go and come again, nothing new under the sun. The walkers wandered, passing and re-passing. Sometimes Sainsbury’s song was sung, and for a while the librarian walked with them again.

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*For international readers, Sainsbury’s is a British supermarket chain.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts