A Bucketful of Broadsheets
by Ruth Moorhouse
I cannot remember my name, nor am I certain that I actually ever possessed one, except...
Except for the most darnedest thing - the print from the newspaper had adhered itself to my fingers, clutching at my skin in a manner that determined to create a new onyx black finger print. The swirls and whirls of my index finger seemingly smudged with a black letter, both indelible and yet illegible. A letter that was so permanently imprinted and yet meaningless. It was the letter of my first name, my Christian name. Back when I had a name, back when I believed.
Walking to the toilet took time. The hallway became akin to a skating rink that had yet to witness a pair of blades slice across its virgin surface. Obviously, whoever had polished the floor had paid no regard to the exquisite parquet and had simply loaded up the buffer with far too much polish. The surface of the hallway floor had become perilous, unnecessarily so, causing my irritation to become inflamed and irrational. It's only a bloody floor, get a grip! Except I couldn't, could I? Get a grip.
Reaching for the bannister of the nearby staircase, I managed to find some semblance of balance and clung, breathing deeply and wishing for all my life that I was not here.
Was not in this room.
This shining hallway of doom.
Was not here.
My retinas collided haphazardly as I shook my head ferociously, willing myself to be removed from this scene at all costs. Scratched across my irises the phrase "I was here". It may as well have been etched in blood. The more I shook my head, the more I was sure I would come to my senses. It wasn't happening. I was feeling scared and the smell of the polish was cloying at my throat. Asphyxiation by beeswax was a distinct possibility.
Clarity hit my mind and I could taste honey on my tongue. I was here, definitely here. In the hallway. Trying to reach the toilet. Okay, got that. But why? Think, think. My fingertips were white where I had been gripping the banister for so long. White with some sort of dirty black inscription... that was it! My hands were covered in some kind of dirt. The toilet downstairs had a rather elegant old porcelain sink in it, newly polished like the hallway floor, but with a hint of lemons emanating from the bowl. A copper plated plug swung aimlessly against the interior, leaving the faintest of scratch marks, like the scratches on my irises, almost invisible to the naked eye but not quite...
I relinquished my hold on the bannister and stood very still, concentrating all my weight down the centre of my body in the hope that it would ground me. Crossing the over-polished floor was but a means to an end. Anticipation grew as I imagined the soap lathering on my hands, a delicious thought. Thoughts. Did I have thoughts? Was I here? For Christ's sake, of course I'm bloody here. Where else would I be...
The washers within the tap creaked and groaned as I turned it very carefully, very slowly in a clockwise direction. Without preamble the water cascaded, hitting the porcelain and splashing the nearby parquet. Small, shiny domes of water formed upon the many layers of polish giving the parquet an appearance of someone with scarlet fever. Almost mesmerised, I stared at the domes, lifting my foot and stamping down hard to crush the pimples of precipitation. This done I turned my attention to the reason for being at the sink, for crossing that hallway. Turning my head I looked at the path I had trod, literally, across the polished surface. The treads on my boots were deep and as I looked again carefully I could see the imprints of my soles filling up not with splashes from the sink. No, the liquid was certainly not clear, more of an inky, syrupy appearance. I am not sure I would have recognised it as my blood at that point... By this point I have stopped looking, I am watching the tap intently, floor forgotten.
Pieces of limescale fell from the rim of the tap as the water pressure increased, leaving the bowl of the sink scattered with miniature petrified objects that even Mother Shipton herself would have been proud of. My hands are quite cold as I introduce them to the water, once again splashes land upon the floor. As I stare at my fingers I try to remember my name. My name. My name. The onyx lettering is still there, spread across my digits like a demonic tattoo. Still I cannot decipher the letter in question, the scratches upon my irises making the task just impossible. I was here. Well if I am, why can't I read the letter, it's my name, can anyone hear me? Christ, my bloody name!
I seize the woven flannel that is flung across the other, unused tap and just before I think I will wipe the lettering off a thought enters my head. Spinning, I put my right hand out to break my fall. As I right myself I see that my hand has the imprint of my boot firmly across my palm where I put all my weight. A ridged imprint and a distinct red dye, blood. The memory comes to me, almost causing me to fall again such is the force of it.
The letter was strewn in a field, a cornfield of calligraphy punctuated by bloody fullstops. I had put my hand into the mud and felt the oozing texture of wet, cold mud mix with the slivers of maize that had been abandoned at the last harvest. Deep within the mud was newspaper so pulped I wasn't even sure it was newspaper the first time I touched it. It felt more like flesh, soft and yet firm, whereas I thought newspaper would be more pliable. What I felt was definitely firmer. Odd, I was expecting something akin to a bucket of papier-mâché deep within the ground. As I withdrew my hand the lettering was there, clearly there. So why was the texture of that "substance" all wrong?
Then I realised, it wasn't newspaper in the ground at all...
Ok, so now I am seriously confused, am I in a cornfield, a hallway or a toilet sink? Am I actually here at all? Can someone read the sodding date on that newspaper please? Top right hand corner, top right hand, top right, yes top... What?!
It's been torn off. Actually torn off. On purpose. As this registers in my brain I know that I am falling, my head hits the sink and around the edge of my mouth a ruby blush appears. At this point I am unsure as to whether I have bitten my lip in the fall or whether I have been punched...
In my daze, by what I long with all my might to be the light of the silvery moon, but what is in actual fact the light of stark, bright reality, I remember what has happened to me.
I love my car, dead cool it is! In a "girl" cool kind of way. You know, cute little size, easy to park. Spotty hub caps which are at first a must and then a pain when they get stolen one by one and cannot be replaced. But cool nevertheless. Cool to drive alone and especially cool to drive with friends. Today? Well today is an alone day so, mirror, check, handbrake, check, signal, mirror, manoeuvre and yes, we're in business. Happy me.
Smiling as I drive, I am thinking about nothing much really, no particular thoughts, nothing of dire urgency that requires attention, and then I notice it, only fleetingly at first, but there it is. And again. A white car, following quite close, too close, they're going to hit me... no, no they're not. Christ, get a grip, only overtaking. God, and again, they're following me again, quite close, too close... where the fuck did they come from... they were in front of me? Get a grip, just overtaking.
The sun hit the dashboard, radiating across the glossy leather interior, seemingly echoing my own internal happiness. I knew at that precise moment I was happy, truly content with my life and all that was around me. Smiling, I leaned forward slightly to change gear and as I did the blood drained from my face. The glow from my skin disappeared and in its place a cold and clammy pallor stealthily took control. All semblance of joy gone, my happiness washed away like paint down the porcelain sink. It was an unkind and cruel artist who now painted my portrait with a sinister, washed out grey.
Surely I must be overreacting? I wound my passenger window down to check again, there would be nothing untoward in my line of vision. Would there?
Again, it was there. The same white car. It was no longer following but almost seemed to be trapping me, enclosing me in what felt at that moment very much like a tarmac tomb. I knew I had to get away, concentration dissipated as my skin seemed to get colder and colder. I changed gear and made a decision. Left, I would go left. At the next set of traffic lights I would take that turn that would lead me out straight on to the road across the Moors. Problem solved, tick.
Left hand at the ready, hovering just above the indicator stick. Where's the traffic lights? My mind spins, the roads have melded into one. The town where I live ceases to exist. Brake on, I stop suddenly and re-evaluate. But there is no time, the white shadow of the car is unrelenting. I go round the block again. The white lines dance about in front of me, knitting themselves together like a jumper that is too tight and that should have been unpicked long ago. I can feel the points of the knitting needles jabbing at my sides as I desperately try to concentrate on the centre of the road, on any part of the road actually. The taste in my mouth is sickly sweet... honey.
I circle the loop of the road again and in the distance I see just the smallest pinprick of a hole. It is as if I am driving on an old AA map, I've stabbed a pin where I would like to go and here I am following that route. Really? Really? Where the hell are the roads, the sound of gravel swishing under my wheel arches as I take a bend? Nowhere, that's where! Have you heard paper make a swishing sound. No. Never. Not once.
I'm here, about to fall through the pin prick on the map when, suddenly, I scrunch my eyes, blinded by some strange unearthly light shining straight into my eyes. The traffic lights leave their amber glow for only a split second as I hit the accelerator and indicate left. Did I actually indicate? Do I actually care?
Taking the road to the Moors provides me with some much needed calm and sanity. Glancing on the passenger seat I see a crumpled up page from my AA road map. I fling it in pent up anger out of the window, failing to notice the pin prick circled by fat, red felt pen. Had I bothered to look I would have known that far from being red pen it was a substance far more sinister.
And breathe, I'm finally on the right road.
As the white car hits me side on, I feel the impact enter the base of my spine and sear through my body. Bang, out of nowhere came insanity. What the hell is going on? Putting my hand to my temple I realise I am bleeding, not profusely, but enough to warrant concern. Tears course down my face as the realisation hits. I am alone. On the Moors. Except that I am far from alone...
The passengers in the white car quickly vacate their car and take advantage of my semi-concussed state. My door is torn open and I am ripped from the last safety I will know for quite some time. Standing silently the three men stare at me, one of them moves forward and shoves me with the barrel of his gun. A lesson maybe for me trying to elude them on the previous road? Or merely to inform me that they are fully armed? I can't think. I want to go home; my children are at home waiting. The sickness that pervades my whole being is almost unbearable. Utter anguish at knowing my children have no idea where I am, and nor does anyone else. Looking at my beloved Moors, I feel total desolation. Their solitude is no longer comforting but alarming... and very, very cruel.
I am standing on the grass verge of the road. Well, I say grass verge but in truth it is more like a mud trough, so much rain has played havoc on the local landscape. It's once awesome features have become sodden and tainted, evoking fear at every step. The once fresh air is stale and putrid; any hopes of revitalising my lungs are dashed. I breathe the fumes of despair and choke on my thoughts.
The barrel of the gun presses into my side again and I am told, no, ordered, to look in front on me. I look, although my eyes are not quite focussing. It is almost as if there is something on my iris, a foreign body causing some kind of irritation. Irrationally I wipe my eye with my right fist, the clenching dragging motion of my hand simply worsening the irritation. Squinting now I look beyond my boots and see in front of me a rectangular field. Quite narrow in depth, laid out as if a giant had aimlessly discarded his belt and here it was. A narrow, thin band of soil. To be fair I could see a significant amount of vegetation on it, a mixture of grass and maize leaves, not just soil. Surrounding the field was a barbed wire fence.
Slowly I am told to make my way to the fence. As I do so the wind of the Moors whips against my face and scrapes across the dampness left by the residue of my tears. Strange, I don't recall crying. Maybe I did. Would anyone even notice? My steps reverberate through the ground, sending messages deep with the earth to who knows whom, who knows where. Would anyone ever listen again? Reaching the fence I see that the cruel artist has been at work again, saving his very best insidious palate to decorate the barbs. As the wire twisted and turned, so the colours of misery ran into each other... gunmetal grey mixed with rusty browns. The very depths of my soul were tarnished by the rainbow hue before me, my eyes focussed and I saw, simply, despondency.
My children would be at home now, getting ready for their tea, delighting at the culinary treats that would appear on chintzy china, carefully placed on a worn but cherished gingham cloth. Boiled eggs and soldiers, bright yellow yolks, bright ruby red cheeks. A sight to behold, sounds of laughter resonating around the room. Brightness and sparkle everywhere they looked. The contrast could not have been greater. I had to find my way back to that myriad of colours, had to escape this cloying, grey landscape. Whilst my babies were enveloped in lightness and warmth I could feel my heart begin to drown in the mucus that flowed from my vista. Why did my eyes hurt so much...?
For an age it seemed that no one moved, I certainly was stock still, staring at the narrow field in front of me. Abruptly I was told to get into the field, quickly, quickly, quickly now! My eyes darted along the lines of the barbed wire, desperately trying to find a gap, a dip, a loose piece I could crawl under. Nothing. The unloved field was surrounded by a fence that was as strong and secure as the day that it was made. Turning to the left I bent forwards and was sick.
Regaining my senses I could not be certain how much time had elapsed; however, I was sure that even if I had had a watch I had lost all ability to focus, never mind tell the time. I had moved onwards, time was marching and so, it seems, was I. The field of mud was now immediately behind me and I found myself standing in a much more furrowed terrain. This piece of field looked like badly forked ganache, ploughed without care and yet there was a deliberate feel to the direction of the furrows. Like a knitting pattern that had been followed to the last letter and then suddenly disregarded, leaving chaos dangling from the tips of the needles. The voice holding the gun spoke to me clearly,
"Find four things in the mud, start digging with your hands and do not stop until you have four things."
I heard the instruction, processed it and simultaneously understood very little. I comprehended the barrel of the gun jabbing into my aching back; that I understood with a bilingual fluency I would not wish upon anyone else.
I began to dig.
Rain poured from the sky, a poisonous precipitation that rendered the mud almost too glutinous to work with. I felt something soft beneath the surface of the mud, it was the papier-mâché, I was right, I knew I was. That is where the inked letter on my hand had come from, a long lost bucket of broadsheets, soft and squidgy, as if trying to create a magazine marshland in this odious landscape. But no, the texture was firmer, like I originally thought. And then I found number one.
Quite fresh, not long in the ground, covered in mud masquerading as adhesive, I knew the papier-mâché was by now a distant hope. This was no bucket with which to create a beautiful sculpture.
As I knelt on the mud I cried, despair and despondency were but pipe dreams, what I felt was much worse. And what I held in my hand tore out my heart. I searched the horizon for the pinprick hole in the map, for traffic lights, for decency...
I had dug up a severed hand of a child.
It took me a thousand lifetimes to dig up the remaining three, my vomit fertilising the furrows whilst my mind refused to believe I was actually here. In this bloody field, no poppies in sight.
Come on! I knew if I could just find the pin prick on the map I could get away, get home, grab my children and never let them go. The crumpled texture of the map was there beneath my fingertips, leaving grey smudges from the ink. Except that the smudges were not grey, not grey at all. The black lettering could clearly be seen, if I could be bothered to look. There was no pinprick, just this huge chasm of death...
As I heard the next instruction I knew I would never again judge anyone for their actions.
The instruction, more a twisted macabre message, ripped at my heart, missing my inner ear drum completely. An odious lesson in biology that someone had got very wrong. The vibrations that should have been loud and clear within my ear dripped with warm, crimson blood. The sound was muffled, causing distortion and, quite possibly, certain death. As the pitch of the instruction is bequeathed an ounce of clarity I, finally, hear.
I had to locate two more hands.
With bile rising in my throat I knew that there were none to be found. There were no more hands. Instruction or no instruction, I had searched every last inch of that field. No stone unturned and all that sanctimonious crap. As I turned around to state my case, that the task could not be performed, the scratches on my eyes deepened and the tears ran like rivulets of thick blood, circling my mouth and leaving a cloying taste. In front of me were three women and three young children. The women all had young children at home and the children all had parents wondering where they were. All were loved. Two hands, I had no choice. The instruction was to find two more hands. Complete the task and I lived to cuddle my beloved children. There was no point discussing the alternative. I was staring at my task. Christ!
Someone threw a knife to the ground in front of me, do the deed, pass go, collect two hundred pounds.
Kill a child. No. Have their parents forever wondering where they are, grief stricken and disabled by pain for all eternity? See real terror in the child's eyes as realisation dawns?
Kill an adult. No. Have their children crying at home because they are cold and hungry and mummy never came back...
It's never going to stop. This non-life that I have fallen into by driving on the wrong road on a map that does not even exist. Where am I?
I can't bear it, I just cannot, cannot bear it.
The rain falls heavier as the blood runs across my cheeks, a vile rouge which adds neither beauty nor glow. The scratches on my irises rendering sight now a luxurious commodity, a priceless possession sunk deep into the mire.
And here I am, unable to see and yet able to perceive far too much. Aware of darkness and a constant clattering in my head, intermittent swooshing, retinas throbbing. The smash of the gun in my back reverberates around my head just as the jangling of the plug against the porcelain sink re-enters my mind. The letters inside the bowl are bright and bold, Armitage Shanks. That was the letter on my skin, A. I bend to look clearly at my skin, to know my name. I need to reconnect, to have proof that I am human, that I am alive, that I am living.
My name, my name....
Without clear vision I see what appears to be only half a picture, framed in the deep recesses of a macabre theatrical workshop. Realisation arrives suddenly, stage left from the theatre of nightmares.
It never was the plug jangling against the porcelain...
The two stumps of my wrists hit the edge of the sink, like maize blowing in the wind long after the harvest has finished.
This harvest, however, had only just begun.
Like the alphabet; A...
A is for Always gripping the banister.
B is for Broadsheet indelibly printed on my fingertips.
C is for Clarity of vision against all odds; or maybe just against scratched, tired irises.
D is for Dirt, almost melded onto my skin from continual digging.
E is for Exception, or should that be omission?
I should have told you from the outset. Except I couldn't could I? The combination of beeswax and blood made coherent speech an indulgent luxury. Just check the date once more on that sodding newspaper please? Top right hand corner, top right hand, top right, yes top... What?!
It's been torn off, but was it ever actually there in the first place?
Are we Now or Before?
Am not even entertaining Later...
Ruth Moorhouse lives by the sea in Kent, England, and combines her career in education with writing fiction, freelance journalism, and food and restaurant reviews. She enjoys theatre, film, books and travel.