(Here’s a story originally published in ‘Orbis'):
Rafford found that he had nothing to say.
He was travelling at 55,000 feet in an airliner which had lost most of its tail section and would crash within a few minutes. Around him some of the passengers were screaming, some were in tears, some praying. A few, including the man sitting next to Rafford, were scribbling furiously on notepads. ‘But why?’ Rafford asked. ‘Message to my family,’ the man next to him said, clearly annoyed at the interruption. ‘Got a lot to tell them.’ He carried on writing.
Rafford thought this was probably a good idea. He took out his pen and tore some pages from his pocket diary. But he found that he had nothing to say. He couldn’t even begin. He asked himself how this could be. He reminded himself that he had a wife and three children whom he loved and he had over forty-five years’ experience of this world that he was about to leave so abruptly. Yet he could say nothing about any of this. Nothing. He put the pen and paper away and tried hard to think of something he should be doing. After a few moments the man sitting next to him said, ‘I know you, you’re a survivor…’
‘Me?’ Rafford looked at him in amazement.
‘Yes, you. You’ll make it. I know these things. Take this.’ He pushed the page containing his message into Rafford’s hands. ‘Make sure Bella and the kids get it. Right?’
‘Right,’ Rafford said, thinking, as he folded the note and put it into an inside pocket: We’re sitting side by side in a crashing plane and he reckons I’ll survive and him not. There’s no end to the absurdity of human nature. He thought that perhaps this was something worth writing down but decided against it.
Everyone on the plane died. Except Rafford. He escaped almost unharmed. He returned to his family and everyone treated him as a hero. He found this difficult to understand. He described himself as a hero by omission. ‘I omitted to die,’ he said, wondering what was heroic in that.
For a few days he was besieged by reporters. ‘What was it like?’ they asked him and he found it almost impossible to say. He told them about the hysteria of some, the calmness of others, the activities that some of the passengers had suddenly found to be so desperately important. ‘And you?’ they asked. ‘How did you feel? What did you do?’
‘I was too frightened to do anything,’ he said, lying. ‘I thought of my family.’ Another lie.
They turned their attention to his wife. ‘What has he told you since he came back?’ they asked. ‘What has he said?’
‘Very little,’ she replied, and it was true. ‘Almost nothing.’
Rafford still had the note written by the man next to him on the plane. Because it was just a folded piece of paper without an envelope he’d read it several times. He was appalled and embarrassed by it. It was little more than sentimental gibberish. Understandable, he thought, but he wondered if what this man had desperately wanted to say had been worth saying. He thought not. Was this what people wanted to hear? He hoped not. Two months after the crash, three months, and he still hadn’t delivered the message.
He decided to visit the man’s widow. He arrived at her house without warning and this was clearly a mistake. She wasn’t shocked but slightly inconvenienced. Rafford sat in a spacious, well-furnished and comfortable living room with two other people – the widow herself and a man introduced as Michael. The dead man’s message, now in an envelope, was in Rafford’s inside pocket and it stayed there. Rafford looked round and saw nothing that was sad. The room was bright and cheerful, the widow clearly not too unhappy. Over coffee she told Rafford that she intended to remarry. She glanced at the man called Michael who contrived to look noble.
Rafford could see that his visit was a big mistake. He told them merely that he had sat next to a man in a plane, that they had promised to visit each other’s family should either of them survive. He finished his coffee quickly and left.
When he got home he burned the envelope with the dead man’s message. He decided that writing things down was a bad idea; words, in general, were suspect things. Sometimes people didn’t want to hear what you had to say; they wanted other things which you were not prepared to tell them. The truth, it seemed, was of minor importance.
That night, in bed, Rafford’s wife asked him for the tenth or twelfth time to tell her what had happened during the last few minutes of the flight. Up to that point he had told her almost nothing. Now he explained to her that during those few minutes before the plane finally crashed he had written her a letter and given it to the man sitting next to him. ‘If I survived, there’d be no need of the letter and if he survived, he could pass it on.’
‘And what did it say?’ she asked.
Rafford repeated the words of the dead man’s message almost exactly, changing only the names, of course. His wife began to cry. Rafford now found that he had a great deal to say, a very great deal, but he couldn’t possibly say any of it.
Copyright: David Mackenzie
(This story originally appeared in ‘Chapman 53′):
McVeen carried with him always a photograph of his father because he could not remember what the man looked like. This block in his ability to conjure up the face of someone he loved irked him. It was not a problem he experienced in the case of another, one whom he perhaps loved less. Whenever he retrieved the photo of his father from an inside pocket there was a moment of surprise in which he thought Why yes, this is what he looked like. This is the man.
The basis of the problem lay in the fact that McVeen had no direct memory of his father. The photograph was a portrait taken when his father was twenty-five, a few months before his death and three years after McVeen was born. McVeen was now thirty-two. It alarmed him to think that he was seven years older than his own father, that the twenty-five year old head displayed in the photograph had perhaps done things that McVeen himself would regard as naive and immature. He would imagine a conversation with his father in which it was he, McVeen, who said, You’re young, you’re inexperienced, you don’t know yet. In a way it was like talking to a younger brother. With time, McVeen reflected, it would be like talking to a son.
The other one, the one he loved less, was his wife. He did not carry a photograph of her. That he should love his father, whom he hardly knew, more than his wife, whom he had known for several years, troubled him a little, but not a great deal. He realised that this business of love required further definition but he was not inclined to study the matter in any great detail. He was able to admit to a fear that his feelings towards his father and, perhaps more importantly, towards his wife, would not bear very close scrutiny. Occasionally he forced himself to make some minor assessment, noting for example that a week might go by during which he looked at his father’s photograph two or three times a day. He wondered if he thought of his wife as often and concluded that yes, this was more than likely. However, these several reflections on his wife might well be classified along with those about his house, his garden, things for which he held affection but nevertheless just things. His wife, he knew, was fading from him. He was getting to know her less and less. he could not imagine requiring a photograph of her.
A week, even two, might pass without reference to the photo of his father. He derived comfort from the solidity of knowing it was there. One day it was not there. Alarmed, he searched all his pockets and then his desk at work but failed to find it. He phoned his wife, something he rarely did from work. She indicated she knew of the photo but refused to tell him about it. She would tell him when he returned.
McVeen left work early.
At home his wife placed the photograph on the table between them. You are obsessed with your father, she said, and it is unhealthy. It is time to choose between someone who is dead and someone who is living. McVeen said nothing and so made his choice. His wife left.
Life for McVeen became difficult. He did not enjoy living alone. He craved company and decided that he craved the company of his wife. He searched out photographs of her. There were many. There were photos of them together before they were married, photos of their wedding day itself and photos taken during all the holidays they had had together since. McVeen separated out the photos of his wife alone and discovered there were twenty-seven of them. He decided which one he would like to carry with him and chose a rather wistful, romantic one. All the while he thought to himself She doesn’t really look like that. Finally he came to believe that this whole business of photographs was absurd. He resolved to have done with such things forever. He felt he could not do it but believed he should try.
A month after his wife left him McVeen sent her a message. There were no words. Inside the envelope which she received was the photograph of his father, torn into four pieces. His wife returned to him the following day.
Life for McVeen began to improve. A year later his wife gave birth to a son; two years after that another son was born. When McVeen was fifty-eight his first son was twenty-five, the age McVeen’s father had been when he died. McVeen said to his son, You’ll learn, you have a long way to go, you’re young. In his desk at work he now kept two photographs, one of his father – he had never told his wife he had had a copy made – and one of his first son. Sometimes he confused the two.
Copyright remains with David Shaw Mackenzie
Two weeks after the cancer took hold and three months before he died, Monks ran his best ever time in a ten mile race in Woking. He attributed his speed to his loss of weight which more than made up for his declining strength. His legs were sound, his lungs were OK, he was half a stone lighter than before.
He knew, from the start of the race, that he’d do well.
He knew, from the start of his illness, that he was going to die.
It amused him that the cancer had actually helped him do well. A performance enhancing disease! Perhaps he should declare it and promise that he’d never race again with such a noxious substance in his body. Ban it, he’d say to the race officials. Ban it. As if such an injunction by itself would serve to rid his body of it, that will alone could force it to leave.
For he had plenty of will, plenty of it; the trouble was he had knowledge as well. And this knowledge was mathematical, statistical; it came in the form of graphs and charts, statements of probability, and all of this disinterested information, printed out in tables and coloured diagrams, pointed only one way. The graphs subsided against time, the bars on the barcharts diminished in height, the probability rose and rose. What he was dealing with here was an absolute, an end point of mathematical certainty. Although he wished it were otherwise, he knew that will was no match for probability theory when the probability registered was 100%.
So he drew some satisfaction from knowing that it was mathematics that had helped him run fast. He had considered the graphs that showed his deteriorating strength and his loss of weight. Strength faded slowly at first, accelerating later; weight dropped quickly then leveled out. Up to the point where the two graphs crossed, he could run fast, perhaps faster than before. And his theory proved to be correct because he’d done it.
His wife, his friends, said: Well done, well done. You can’t be ill. This proves it. They must have made a mistake. He smiled and nodded. Maybe, he said, maybe. But they hadn’t seen the graphs, they didn’t know his secret. And he didn’t tell them, either. Not because it was too complicated – it was quite simple really – but because that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. So he arranged a compromise between his responsibility to them and his responsibility to himself, a compromise that resulted in the word: Maybe. Spoken twice. Maybe.
He decided not to run again.
They said: Why? Why? Just when you’re doing so well. But again it was exhortation born of ignorance. Only he could see how the graphs were shaping. In three days’ time the two lines would cross and he would enter the area of deficit where his strength would be depleted at a greater rate than his loss of weight. Soon, no matter how light he became, he would lack sufficient strength to propel his body at the speed he had attained before. Weight loss outweighed by weakness. So did his disease play jokes on him.
A couple of weeks later he could barely walk, let alone run. His friends couldn’t understand it. He could. But still this knowledge wasn’t something he cared to impart. It would only depress them and confuse them. As for himself, he wasn’t at all confused and it was this understanding that helped him avoid depression. He marveled at the impartiality of mathematical truth; he let the numbers have free play with his body. It was as if what he was – bones, blood, flesh, tumour – was subject to algebraic certainty, had become invested with a huge, undeniable calculus.
He grew tired. There was a graph for that too, no doubt, but he allowed his body, internally, to manufacture the lines; he lacked the energy to sit down and work it out with his mind and his tired fingers. But the original graph was clear – strength and weight, declining now in shallow curves, edging slowly towards the baseline. And all there was left to hope for – for there was always hope, even if that hope concerned merely the manner of his death – was that it wouldn’t be too long after his strength finally gave out that he would become truly weightless.
Copyright: David Shaw Mackenzie
It was a good punch and Gilfedder knew it. Kingsmill went down and stayed down.
Someone said, ‘Jesus, Donnie.’
The Mule pulled his gloves off quickly and threw them to one side. He knelt down and took Tom Kingsmill’s head in his hands. Blood was trickling from his mouth and nose and gashed cheek. The Mule looked up at Gilfedder and said, ‘Christ, man, are you clean daft?’
‘Leave him,’ Gilfedder said.
‘I will not.’
‘Leave him, I said.’
The Mule shook his head. ‘Will you do the same to me, then, Donnie? Flatten me, too? Eh?’
‘I’ve a mind to.’
The Mule turned his attention back to Kingsmill who was stretched out on the floor of the loading bay, his head lying on one extended arm, the side and sleeve of his thick green pullover soaking up the water, streaked with fish-oil and fish blood, that lay in shallow pools across the cold concrete surface. His right foot, in its scuffed yellow boot speckled with mackerel scales, lay on top of the last box of mackerel that Gilfedder had unloaded. A couple of fish had fallen out of it and lay on the floor in a sprinkling of crushed ice. There was nowhere in the loading bay, nor in the adjacent freezing hall, huge, cold, and empty, that was free of the thick, heavy smell of fish.
‘Give me a hand here, someone,’ the Mule said. He’d taken from his overalls pocket a clean white handkerchief, neatly folded, which he used to wipe Kingsmill’s mouth and nose. Now he dabbed at his cheek. ‘Give me a hand, eh?’ The Mule looked up.
The seven other members of the nightshift stood in an uneven semicircle round the trio of Donald Gilfedder, the Mule and the unconscious Tom Kingsmill. Their dark orange aprons were smeared with fish detritus – scales, blood, bits of fin and gut – from that day’s work and maybe yesterday’s and last week’s as well. Their heavy rubber gloves stretched all the way up to their elbows. Some of the men stood on the loading bay; some were still up among the stacked boxes on the back of the half-unloaded lorry. Although reluctant to move because they were, all of them, afraid of Gilfedder, they sensed now a shifting of power. Gilfedder had stepped outside the world of WattWays fish processing plant; other agencies would soon be involved. Their sense of fear was about to be replaced by something close to blessed release.
‘Aye, come on then,’ Morrison said, stepping forward at last. ‘He’s in a bad way, right enough.’
‘Yes, come on,’ someone else said, throwing off his gloves. ‘Let’s get him inside.’
For the first time Gilfedder found himself ignored. He reached behind his back and pulled apart the knot that held together the strings of his apron. He pulled the neck string over his head and flung the apron onto the nearest stack of mackerel boxes, on top of the gloves he had discarded some time before.
As four men now leaned over and tended to Tom Kingsmill, Gilfedder stepped round the fish box at Kingsmill’s feet and set off, striding quickly along the loading bay, past the cab of the half-unloaded lorry, down the ramp at the far end and then out of the huge hangar-like building which was WattWays fish processing plant, into the cold, dark air of the late evening.
He walked quickly towards the outskirts of Dalmore. WattWays was about a quarter of a mile from the edge of the town and, for the three hundred yards or so after the street lights ended and before they began again, Gilfedder could see the sky, clear and cold and star-lit, not that he paid too much attention to it.
At ten fifteen at night the road was quiet and he was glad of that. But there would be people arriving soon, he was sure. He had very little time. Within a couple of minutes he could hear a siren start up from the direction of South Mossfield. He could even trace the vehicle’s progress as it left the roundabout at the southern end of the new Duie Bridge and headed onto the immense span of the bridge itself. It would take at least a couple of minutes to reach the Broadleet Junction and turn towards WattWays.
Of course, it could be the siren of an ambulance. But whether it was or wasn’t, other sirens would follow, he was sure.
He speeded up and found himself jogging awkwardly, hindered by the heavy leather boots he was wearing. He reached the sign that said DALMORE, above which was the greeting ‘Ceud Mile Failte’. Into the town now, he slowed to a walk as he was beginning to struggle for breath. They’d go to the plant first, he reckoned, but they’d soon head for his house. They knew where he lived.
Dalmore Drive, Sheeppark Avenue and finally Proby Street. As he turned the corner, someone called out, ‘All right, Donnie?’
He glanced across the street. He waved. ‘OK, Mac?’
‘Fine, fine. Thought you were on nights this week.’
‘Fish lorry’s late and I forgot my piece.’
‘Aye. See you later.’
Gilfedder pushed on. He became aware of a siren that was very close. Very close. He slowed down.
He was fifty yards from home, no further, when the squad car overtook him. As the vehicle pulled up and the doors opened, Gilfedder stopped. He stood quite still on the pavement, trying to regulate his breathing.
Two policemen got out of the car and closed the doors quietly behind them. They walked a few paces towards Gilfedder and halted about ten feet away.
‘Hello, Donnie,’ one of them said. They were big men, both of them, but slightly overweight. Gilfedder was taller and lighter. ‘Not working tonight?’
‘And why’s that, then?’
‘Oh, not feelin’ too well,’ Gilfedder offered.
The one who had not so far spoken said, ‘I think we’ll need a wee word.’
‘Oh? What word’s that then?’ Gilfedder asked and his tone was amiable, almost gentle.
The first policeman smiled. ‘Not here,’ he said. ‘Down at the station.’
Gilfedder shrugged. ‘Aye, well. No problem.’ He stepped forward. Both policemen took a couple of steps back towards the car. One of them opened the back door. Gilfedder smiled. The door partly protected this one so it was the other that he attacked first, taking a swift step forward and kicking him hard between the legs. Now that violence had begun, the door was no longer a protection for the first policeman; it was a hindrance. Gilfedder pushed against it, knocking the man off balance. As he went down, Gilfedder’s feet came into play again. Three kicks: knee, ribs, ear.
The stupid cunts never learned, did they? No threats, no warning, no delay. Just in. Do it. God almighty.
Gilfedder left the two men groaning on the pavement. He stepped past them and began to walk quickly again towards his house.
Oh, he’d done it now for sure. ‘You’re for it, now, Donnie,’ someone at the plant had said to him. ‘You’re for it.’ That was just after he’d smacked that bigheaded cunt, Kingsmill. And now he’d decked a couple of the boys in blue as well. He was for it, certainly. No two ways. Yes, he was well and truly fucked. All hope gone. Get on, get in the house. But all hope gone, now. All gone.
‘Donnie?’ his wife called from the kitchen. ‘Donnie? Is that you?’
‘Something the matter?’ She stepped into the corridor.
‘Aye.’ Gilfedder locked the front door and slotted the chain catch in place. Then he strode past his wife and into the kitchen.
‘Get upstairs,’ he said to her. He crossed to the back door and locked it.
‘What’s going on?’
He turned to face her. ‘Didn’t I tell you something?’
‘What on earth…’
They both heard the approaching police siren.
‘Oh, no, Donnie, what have you done? What have…’
‘Upstairs! Now!’ he shouted at her and she burst into tears.
‘Christ, Donnie, I can’t take it again, whatever it is. Not again. Please. Please.’ She covered her face with her hands. ‘Please, no.’
Gilfedder came up to her and put his hands on her shoulders. He turned her round and pushed her towards the staircase. ‘You just get upstairs like a good wee wife and leave all this shite to me,’ he said quietly. ‘Go on, now.’ He pushed her until she reached the staircase. She took two steps up then collapsed, sobbing.
‘Go on! Up!’ he insisted.
She took hold of the banister and pulled herself upright.
‘All the way now.’
She began to climb the stairs.
In the kitchen again, Gilfedder looked at the back door and shook his head. Half of it was glass.
‘Fucking useless. Well…’
He took what he reckoned was the heaviest of the kitchen chairs and wedged the back of it under the door handle.
‘Waste of fucking time…’
He threw the chair to one side. He pulled the fridge across the floor, ripping the cable from the wall plug as he did so. He tipped it onto its side, the contents sliding from shelves and spilling or breaking, smashing, splashing inside. He heaved it against the door.
The siren had stopped.
He heard fists rapping sharply on the front door. ‘Gilfedder! Police! Open up. Come on now, open up.’
Gilfedder stood on a chair to reach into the top shelf of one of the kitchen cupboards. Carefully he pulled out something long and thin, wrapped in a grey blanket. He set this bundle on the kitchen table. Peeling away the blanket he exposed a double-barrelled shotgun, an over-and-under, of clean, oiled, gleaming metal and wood. Back on the chair, he reached into the cupboard again and retrieved a box of cartridges.
His wife was at the kitchen door. She caught sight of the shotgun in frenzied alarm. ‘No, Donnie! No! No!’ She rushed at him and grabbed his shoulders. ‘Please! No! Don’t be… don’t…’
He pushed her away and swatted her face with the back of his hand. She turned with the force of the blow, lost her footing and fell to the floor.
‘Now you just leave this to me,’ he said calmly. ‘You just get upstairs and I’ll be up myself directly. But you have to go now.’ He reached down, grabbed her by the arm and yanked her to her feet. He pulled, half-dragged her to the foot of the stairs and pushed her up the first few steps one more time. ‘Go on!’ he told her. ‘Upstairs, all the way.’ Whimpering, she took hold of the banister.
‘Gilfedder! Open up now! Come on!’
In the kitchen, Gilfedder pushed two cartridges into the shotgun and snapped it shut. Back in the hall, he faced the front door.
From the top of the stairs his wife said, ‘Please, Donnie, please don’t do anything…’
‘Into the bedroom, go on now,’ Gilfedder said.
‘We’re coming in, Gilfedder!’
‘Aye, like fuck,’ Gilfedder said quietly. He stood at the foot of the stairs, looking towards the front door. In a few seconds, he knew, they would start to break it down.
In the tiny hallway the noise of each discharge was huge, a catastrophe to the senses, as he fired both barrels at the top of the door. Wood and glass disintegrated. Splinters of both flew about the tiny space like a thin, sharp fog. As the noise of the shotgun abated Gilfedder heard the screams of his wife from the top of the stairs and he heard shouting outside. ‘Back! Back! Come on! Fucksake, get out of there!’
‘Aye, fuck off,’ Gilfedder said quietly. ‘Just fuck off.’ He reloaded the shotgun and raised it as if to fire again. But he changed his mind. He lowered it and slipped on the safety catch. Then he turned and made his way quickly upstairs.
Copyright: David Shaw Mackenzie
If you enjoyed the first nine pages, please read the remaining 315!