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Manchester Writing Competition 2013: the Short-listed Fiction Finalists

Adam Wilmington


      They didn't know what to do about it. Nothing seemed to fit. She had suggested they bury it; he said it should be burned.

      I hear they let off this nasty smell when they burn up, he said. She lamented that there was no earth anywhere to dig up even if they were to bury it. There's concrete over everywhere nowadays. There's no trees.

      I remember when there used to be trees.

      They went to dinner with it and shared awkward glances across the table; they swapped little iris messages. Little ocular murmurs. She wore that nice red skirt he loved, and the black blouse she had worn on their second date (remember that?). He had taken especial care of his beard that night – spending close to half an hour absent-mindedly plucking and preening in front of the bathroom mirror. All the while trying his utmost hardest not to look at the corner of the looking-glass where he knew it could be seen in the corner of the panel, like a dark stain across the surface.

       Initially, many of the other diners were disconcerted by the presence of it; they shuffled largely in their wooden seats and smiled apologetically at each other. Someone made a joke to his party about it and watched with delight as they exploded in calculated mirth. Someone else discreetly asked the head waiter if he could possibly do something about it.

      The waiter floated over and gravely addressed the embarrassed couple.

      I know, I know, the man said, but what are we meant to do? Just tell us that.

      We've tried everything, she implored.

       The waiter spent a while shrugging and pulling faces then just slunk off, defeated, leaving them alone – a course of action which the particular gentleman who had made the initial complaint clearly disapproved of. His wife assured him that he was powerless to do anything; that some people don't understand; some people are selfish; the waiter was incompetent at his job. They wouldn't come here again. After some time, the room settled down and the undulating waves of interest ebbed towards more familiar attractions. Wine was poured, food was relished. Lips were smacked.

      They settled the bill and left.

      This was one of many incidents. Of course there were good days; sometimes it didn't matter that it was there – after all, they reasoned, who hasn't known it? Friends would come round and no-one would notice anything – their laughter would pour under doors and sweep against the skirting boards and everything would be okay.

      She would say to him, I love you.

      I love you, he would say back to her.

      Everyone would smile and be happy. But then it would enter the room and sit down and look; it would envelop the room with its gaze. Not with its eyes (it didn't have eyes – how could it?); but with the idea of eyes. It wore a carved remembrance of a smile and beamed cavernously at them. It didn't smile with a mouth (it didn't have any mouth – how did it eat? I don't know, she had once replied); but with the idea of a smile, of a mouth. Regardless, they would gather themselves together and embrace each other as if it wasn't there. They were all friends here after all.

      After a time it insinuated itself into their favourite music, over-seasoned their favourite meals. It cropped up in old photographs, standing ominously in the dog-eared corners, eating air. He took to taking long bracing walks all by himself, whistling familiar tunes and keeping the beat with the slap-dash shuffle of his feet. This gave him time to think and a space to himself. When he came back he would lift the heavy key up to the big, red door and enter the house, putting on a face of studied nonchalance and peace, pushing past the disused pram and the rain jackets in the hallway and striding confidently into the front room.

      Nice walk?

      It was okay. I went by the old park, it's still lovely in there.

       I'm sure it is, she smiled, looking up from her work smeared out across the furniture.

       Listen, when are we going to get rid of that buggy in the hall? I damn near break my neck every time I come in.

       She hardened. Not yet, she said.

       It began to stir in the corner. She went back to her work and he went through into the kitchen to make some tea.

       It was becoming too hard to ignore now – they soon learned that the restaurant fiasco had been but the tip of the iceberg. What had once drawn curious gazes from strangers had now evolved into a tempestuous adolescent which drew the attentions of both frightened spectators and concerned family members alike. They tried to cover it, to hide it. She would daub it with gaudy make-up in an attempt to make it presentable. To normalize it.

       No-one will notice, she assured herself.

       He dressed it in extravagant swathes of cloth; desperately tightening cords, tying knots, fastening buckles. Staring into the ever more inconceivable depths of its new-found bulk, he pulled and tugged more and more desperately each time. Unwittingly, he had discovered an accelerated unknown urgency and his frayed fingers struggled to keep up with the frantic desires of his diseased mind.

       More, more, more, he mumbled.


       Soon the local news caught wind of what was happening. A frothing editor waved his arms madly and commanded his photographers and journalists to camp outside the couple's front door. He gave them strict orders to report anything that they saw and photograph anything which seemed of interest to the general public. Out of the kitchen window, she could see the camera lenses scattered amongst the privets like so many shining marbles – whenever it walked past there would be a frenzy of clicking followed by the confused murmur of the reporters.

       What is it?

       What happened to it?

       What's it doing?

       Why won't they leave us alone? she asked him.

       They're not interested in us, he sighed, they're only interested in it.

       They tried to trick it into staying outside, into getting lost. They would drive it to seaports, parks, supermarkets and leave it there, where someone else might find it – but it always found its way back. Driving back from the docks where they had left it one time, they would be nearly weightless with relief – they could even afford to share smiles – until they arrived back at the house to find it standing serenely amongst the pale leaves crowding the garden, with the reporters huddled around it, impotently asking unanswered questions. The couple just sat there in the car and watched it.

       We should have burnt it when we had the chance.

       Maybe you're right.

       I am right.

       Maybe you are.

       Every night now it would come into their room and wait listlessly at the foot of their bed. It was too big now, too big. It occupied space like an obsession and swallowed up moods whole. With a growing stench of regret, it wallowed in its own actuality - a void too despairing to be looked into, a maniac sun which would scar the eyes.
We should do something, before it's too late.

       She rested in her silence for a time.

       Okay. Tomorrow night, she whispered.

       The next evening, they tied it up and covered it in sheets. It didn't resist, but its chilly touch sent the clean knowledge of emptiness straight through to their cores. The crowds of spectators and hustling reporters had made it difficult to enter their house when they returned from work that afternoon – as usual - but tomorrow, they told themselves, there would be no more problems of this ilk. This was the final step. To be safe they strapped belts around the inert bundle; then to be extra safe they taped it up securely as well.

       Let's put it in the trunk. Come on, help me lift.

       They stumbled clumsily to the garage having had to take several stops along the way and then gingerly placed it in the back of the car with the sort of reverence one might reserve for a child.

       There, he said with finality.

       She puffed out her cheeks and nodded.

       They drove out past the scattered remains of the crowd – those photographers still ravenous enough to set up camp on the lawn – and sped out of town with a festering urgency, leaving the winking bright eyes of the cameras in their wake. They used to take trips out to the country all the time; they would pack their suitcases full of new clothes and optimism and just head out, making bookings by phone on the way. She would laugh with her pretty little laugh and point out all the beautiful things she saw and he would marvel at her trained eye, at her innate elegance. Like those nights of old, the stars were all the way out again tonight and the planets blistered in the sky with a familiar and intimate power. They stopped some way out West near the coast and parked the car in a forgotten field, painted a thin hue of silver in the light of the dead and indifferent moon.

       After the gasoline had been poured over the grim, still bundle, she lit a match and let it drop. From a reasonable distance, the flames flared and teased their way across their motionless faces.

       Maybe we'll miss it, she mused.

       How can you miss something that isn't there?

       A pause, then: You can.

* * *

      The house rose triumphantly from the glistening, dew-sodden lawn on their approach. All the news crews, the photographers, the journalists had scattered by now, off to pursue fresh news. No doubt they had found newer, unspoiled gardens to walk about on. He reached out and grasped her hand, passing on a look of trepidation in the process. Nodding grimly towards one another they anxiously stepped towards the big, red front door like tongue-tied young newly-weds who blush beautifully on their wedding night.

      Something moved, in the front room. The half-drawn curtain recoiled and shuddered. His hand, holding the key half raised to the lock, froze. Their eyes met and they shared a sense of dreadful lightness. Trembling slightly, he continued in his mission to open the door but now all the weight in the universe seemed to rest in that key, all the unknowable, terrible secrets of the world resided right there in that hushed and sudden moment, each groove and its intricate spacing along the calculating metal seemed to hold the terrible knowledge of the ancients – the key sang of barriers in its own language; it told of the slow lift and then the release, of doors opened throughout time through all the world to lead two lovers to this very instant, this very place.

       Click, said the key as it opened the door.

       Thud, said the door, as it hurled itself emptily against the wall.

       She said she would go in first.

       Sure, okay, he replied.

       Stepping across the threshold, she pushed past the detritus in the darkened hall and edged her way gingerly to the doorway of the front room. The door was open and on its sure, wooden bulk the dappled shadows of the night outside were in riot. He hung back as she positioned herself resolutely in the frame, body receptive to the room, alert and determined.

       Well? Is something there? What's happening?

       Nothing. Silence. He waited for her to speak but the tendrils of moonlight which reached for her features through the shrubbery in the garden carried a strange mood with them. Her eyes gleamed emptily under flickering anaemic spurts of illumination and her expression became ossified and unknowable.

       Again: What's up? Can you see anything?

       Light and not-light took turns to caress her pale and delicate face, death-tones reflected from a dead rock which spoke sullenly of absence and its immutable stillness.

      Well? he rasped urgently. What is it?

      I don't know, she said. I don't know.

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