Short story. Mr Keirney has an unfortunate accident with his soul.
De Vries gave me the contact. He was an old client of Morley and Quick, the company I work for.
‘You can trust Mr De Vries,’ Morley told me. ‘His family have been our clients for generations.’
It was in these moments the company appeared as a dark tunnel. It stretched back behind me, crumbling, cobwebbed, layered in filth, but somehow still standing. A small legal firm. Traditional. Discreet. For those who prefer a personal service.
So I had confided my secret to De Vries when he visited the office one day. No surprise or disgust registered on his waxwork face.
De Vries was small and neat. He seemed to view the world as a fastidious person might view a sock drawer. He looked at me as though I had somehow become unfurled, and merely needed rerolling and popping back in my proper place.
‘Keirney, isn’t it?’ he asked.
‘That’s right,’ I replied. I suppressed a brief, inexplicable shudder that he knew my name.
‘Worry not, Keirney. We will take care of you. For a price, of course. There is always a price.’
I held my savings in a briefcase now, gloved hand tight around the handle, as I stood in the pale orange light of the streetlamp. The air was heavy with moisture, and the dampness crept under my thick winter overcoat and chilled me through. I’d felt the cold more since it happened. I’d found, as well, that I couldn’t recall what my savings were for. Vague plans, I supposed. Some sort of hope. A window to look through. I no longer knew.
Carelessness, that’s what Morley called it. He was right, of course. I’d worked late again, for the fifth night in a row. I’d stopped at the Tesco Metro nearest my house each night that week, to pick up dinner. Somehow I’d not managed to do a larger shop. Good intentions pooled at my feet, and I trampled them. On the night it happened, I’d stood again in the aisle of the over-lit store, staring between the chicken paella and the edamame stir fry, whose grated carrot stuck limply to the underside of the film lid, but this time something faded within me.
It was only the softest passing, but I knew as it happened. A small piece of me had died.
I took down the chicken paella and made my way to the self-service till, but then thought better of it, and chose the staffed checkout instead. I was searching for something that I knew, on some level, I had lost.
The human contact of passing over the money, and the brittle smile of the girl on the till, momentarily filled the gap. But as I walked down the street to my flat, I was sure of the hole that was there inside me. The space within me sucked like a vacuum, sapping my strength, sipping away at the colours that surrounded me, and leaving my world a paler wash. I sought out the company of others, but it didn’t fill the gap. Their presence created only a dull yearning.
The voice scared away my memories, like the weak revenants they were, and snapped me back to the wet street, my brief case, the sickly light. I looked round to find a small, neat man looking up at me. He put me in mind of De Vries straight away, but he was much younger. He wore a non-descript black raincoat and carried the evening paper under his arm.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Did Mr De Vr — ’
‘Hush, Mr Keirney. I am the person you’re expecting. Yes.’
He looked down at the case in my hand, so I held it out towards him.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘They’re waiting for you.’
As he took the case, he slipped a piece of paper into my still outstretched hand. I closed my fist around it.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
I watched him walk away down the street, stepping briskly around puddles left by an earlier rain.
When he was out of sight, I straightened out the piece of paper, my chest aching with the vertigo of expectation. There it was: the address, written in the centre of the page in a neat cursive script, and beside it, a small diagram — a tiny roadmap to my destination.
I’d lived in this city my whole life, but never ventured that far down Pitt Street before, nor taken the left turn at the end, down the narrow alley which bore no name. It was so narrow my shoulders scraped against the mire-covered bricks as I entered. It stank of urine. I looked down at my polished shoes on the stone flags, grateful at least that the greenish slime only coated the edges of the pathway. Thankfully, it was not long before the alley opened out into a small courtyard, the buildings more ancient here, the upper storeys leaning conspiratorially over the cobbled yard.
Wisps of cloud covered over the moon, dulling its light. Yet I made out the sign above the door — cracked paint, gold on black — proclaiming my destination. Entwhistle’s Epicurean. The name held a suggestion that the location in no way matched. The overhanging upper storey and its corner location cast the shop in deep shadow. An empty many-paned window offered no clue as to the contents or nature of the shop. I stared in, searching for something. Perhaps reassurance or some clue. I don’t know. Black board met me, backing what might have been a display in another shop, but which here offered only an absence. Yet this was the place I sought, and there was nothing for it but to push ahead. I’d come this far, after all.
I stepped forward and pushed the door open gingerly. An old-fashioned shop bell dinged a greeting, and golden light enveloped me. It was a surprisingly welcoming colour which had not managed to seep out into the street. The shop was very small, if it was a shop at all. Nothing appeared to be for sale. Before me was a counter, and behind it stood a tall, portly man, middle-aged, in a white shirt and deep burgundy waistcoat, buttons straining a little against the progress of his stomach. He looked at me mildly through round wire-framed glasses.
‘Mr Keirney, is it?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
There was a smoothness to the proceedings which unsettled me, when it should have done the opposite. Everyone knew their role and their lines but me. Perhaps that was it. I should have liked to read the script that I was written into. I played my part blindly.
‘It will be a few minutes, sir,’ the shopkeeper said.
‘All right,’ I replied, for want of some better reply. ‘Are you Mr Entwhistle?’ At least I could know one of their names.
‘That’s right, sir.’
I drew nearer to the counter and placed one hand on it. The wooden surface was pocked and gouged. I worried at one of the marks with my finger. Mr Entwhistle didn’t try to make further conversation and neither did I.
A feminine cry made me jump. It built from just a whimper, floating up through the dusty floorboards. It rose, agonised, to a shrill crescendo. The pain held within it tore at my chest. Instinctively, I put my hand to my heart, and felt the cry echo there. Again it came, this time louder. I felt with it the last gasp of something dying, of a thousand possibilities snuffed out, of the death of a great passion for all of life. It was the most terrible thing I’d ever heard, and even when it had gone, the pain in my chest remained, as though my lungs were filling up from a great well of sorrow that had no end.
‘Oh, God,’ I gasped.
Mr Entwhistle didn’t respond. He stared at me impassively as though nothing had happened, and then he came out from behind his counter. He opened a small door to the side and disappeared through it. I listened to his footsteps thump down wooden stairs, noticing the golden glow had dulled around me. Silence. And then he ascended again.
He returned carrying some kind of metal device. It was shaped vaguely like a gun, but more rounded and bulbous. The metal was dull and heavy looking, the design like something from an earlier time of heavy riveting and mechanisation.
He stood before me. ‘If you could just open your shirt, sir.’
I put my tie aside, distracted. The sound of her pain, that unknown woman who even now perhaps lay beneath where I stood, would not let me go.
Mr Entwhistle placed one hand on my shoulder, bracing me. He pointed the contraption at my chest, and pressed a button where a trigger might have been. A circle of large needles extended, piercing my skin with such force they drove through my chest-plate. But a new sensation overrode the pain. At that moment, I knew her. The woman who had cried out. I knew her, and I knew her horror as the final piece of her soul had been torn from her. That desperation she had felt, as she stared at the end of her road. The choices she hadn’t had, the path that had led her to this place. I couldn’t unpick it all, it hit me too fast, and too fleetingly, intermingled with a lifetime of love and loss. And through it all, incomprehensible, a frail thread of hope. I felt myself paper-thin beside such strength of feeling — a sham of a man. My life stretched out behind me like a shoddy imitation performed by a puppet with a heart and mind of wood. And then, as fast as it had come, it faded. The device had been withdrawn from my flesh without my noticing.
I searched Mr Entwhistle’s face for answers as I buttoned up my shirt, but the same mild, impassive expression met me.
‘Can I get you something, sir? Perhaps a cup of tea,’ he asked.
A heaviness settled on me. I moved my arm as though through water, my limbs slow and detached. The pained cry still rang in my ears. I needed to be free of the place.
‘No, thank you,’ I mumbled, as I turned and opened the door.
The bell dinged at me as I walked out. I stood on the threshold, whilst at my back the door closed with a hollow click.
The scene that greeted me was the same one I’d left, and yet somehow, not. A familiarity overlaid those grime-covered bricks; a sense of safety filled me, where before I’d felt myself a stranger, weighed down by the vague sense of threat carried in the very stones, and the overwhelming sense of neglect. Green moss flourished between the cobble stones, and I stopped to marvel at that glint of bright colour amongst the filth. Somewhere, a woman was singing carelessly, as though only to herself. My heart ached for the song with the ghost of a memory I could not explain. Tears fell from my eyes for no reason I understood, and I wrapped my arms around myself, walking towards the alley unsteadily, as though in a dream. I swayed as I negotiated the narrow tunnel that had led me there, reaching the end only to feel myself fall out onto Pitt Street, stumbling against a nearby wall.
‘Mr Keirney?’ The voice was soft and polite. A discreet voice.
I turned to find a stranger, but he reminded me strongly of the man who had taken my case of money earlier. He put a hand under my arm and, with just a little pressure, guided me away from the wall.
‘Come with me, Mr Keirney. There are friends waiting for you.’
I’d no idea what he meant, but I was grateful for his help. I felt myself cracking in two. That part of me that knew this place, that called it home, dug its nails into the mossy wall and held on, but the greater part of me wished to leave. That part of me craved light, and cleanliness, and the little certainties we all expect. Some of us expect.
I ebbed and flowed, as I was led back along Pitt Street, back towards the light. The two parts of me jangled together, ill-fitting. But I couldn’t help notice the colour was back, and better than before. Even the pooled streetlight painted the puddles rich gold. The deep blue neon sign of an adult cinema captivated me as we progressed towards civilisation.
We kept to backstreets, but already the filth had subsided. We must have been skirting the edge of the financial district.
Finally, we found our way to a street of what seemed to be offices. An intricately moulded iron door caught my eye and I stopped to marvel at the abstract shapes it held, suggesting both people and creeping plant life. I put out my hand to feel the swirling shapes, but my guide placed his hand against my back to move me on.
‘It is better not to linger, Mr Keirney,’ he said. I’d no idea what he meant, but it was that uncertainty which forced me to place my trust in him.
At the end of the street, he paused, and then directed me in his gentle way towards a door. It was a large, sturdy wooden thing, painted black, with a great brass knob. There was no plaque outside to suggest what type of business it might be.
My guide pressed a button in a grey box to one side. A crackle answered us, indiscernible as a voice.
‘I have Mr Keirney,’ my guide said.
Silence followed and then a click somewhere in the door mechanism.
At the top of a narrow staircase, we came out onto a landing, and from the landing, through double doors. Warmth greeted us, and the low buzz of congenial chit chat. The room was large, richly appointed in dark wood, with thick red carpet. Leather chairs and tables were arrayed about the place, and bookshelves lined the walls. To one side sat a large bar; its brass fittings glinted at me proudly.
‘Mr De Vries is waiting for you,’ my guide said. ‘I’ll leave you here.’
He gestured towards a group of chairs at the far end of the room, and then slipped away before I could respond.
I recognised the compact form of De Vries from across the room, talking to another person who had their back to me. I made my way towards him, pulled by welcome familiarity. As I passed, people stared. Some nodded. I didn’t recognise them, but they seemed to expect me.
‘Keirney,’ De Vries said, when I finally reached him.
He offered his hand, so I took it. ‘Mr De Vries,’ I answered.
He held my hand for a few moments longer than was usual, and said, ‘welcome to our club. Won’t you sit.’
I took the chair beside him, once he released me.
‘This is my ward, Adam,’ he said.
My heart caught as I saw his companion. He was young, perhaps twenty. Large eyes looked out from under a mop of dark curly hair. He was too thin, too pale, and his eyes too old for someone of his age. His presence tore into me. I reached out and grasped his wrist.
‘I know you,’ I said.
He winced, and I realised I was hurting him, but I couldn’t bear to let him go. My heart ached with longing — a great burning need to protect him, to love him, to hold his head against my chest, as I had done a thousand times.
‘Mr Keirney,’ De Vries said sharply.
I loosened my grip, as Adam pulled his hand away.
De Vries placed his hand on my arm. ‘You must be careful, Keirney. It is only the residue of another’s life. And so much more vibrant, more vital, from an artist. In time, it will fade and sink down, until it is a part of you.’
His mother. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the chair. This was her son. Adam.
‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered.
‘There is no purpose in regret, Keirney,’ De Vries said, in a tone of fatherly admonishment. ‘Adam’s mother and I struck a deal, that is all. Everything has a price. Her price was a better life for her son. Is that not a noble thing?’
I opened my eyes and looked at him again, her son. It was. Far nobler than anything I could have done. That little piece of her I held inside me was jagged, grating against the other parts of me. Those soft, insipid pieces I called a life, a soul. Hers was hard and gleaming, a warm golden glow in the darkness. I wished the rest of me could somehow be replaced, to be a match to her beauty.
‘It is interesting how we come to know ourselves in these moments,’ De Vries said.
I met his eyes and saw understanding. The realisation of what a sordid thing I was. He’d felt it, too. And then he’d acted, again and again, driven by the same hunger. I yearned to replace those other parts of me that had worn so threadbare.
‘Don’t worry, Keirney. I will guide you. And I’m sure that you and Adam will become great friends in time. He carries no resentment, do you, boy?’
‘No, Mr De Vries. I’m very grateful for this opportunity. Thank you.’
I looked from De Vries to Adam and back again. I imagined a great pit opening before me, its gaping darkness rising up to swallow me. But nothing happened. I remained seated in my comfortable chair.
‘Would you like a drink?’ De Vries asked.
‘Thank you,’ I answered. The glint of her gold shone inside me, a dim light against the grey. ‘Thank you,’ I said again. After all, I was also grateful.