“What else can I do?”
“Do what you’d normally do,” said Nudge.
“I can’t do that. I’ve got to keep ultra-safe. This could be my death day,” said Nathaniel from beneath his unwashed wig of curled straw. His hair had shrugged off its usual sheen in protest, in sympathy and in stress, but mostly because it hadn’t seen water since its rootstock had received its uncertain death sentence ten days earlier. It was the eleventh of October, 1969.
Nudge nudged the rubbery timber of the shed’s door frame. “So could every day. So could any day, for anyone. For everyone,” she said.
“Not for everyone.”
“Could be. If there was a nuclear war.”
“Not everyone would vaporise at the same time.”
“I’d quite like to be instantly vaporised,” mused Nudge.
“Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Nathaniel, squirming deeper into the over-stuffed corner of Nudge’s mum’s garden shed. “And if it did it would just prove Mother Eartha right. Not that she’d be able to relish her satisfaction. Anyway, so far everything is patently non-nuclear.” He produced a packet of Polo Mints and a bottle of American Cream Soda from his anorak pockets. He put them between the corroded pincers and rust-locked monkey spanner on a shelf of uncertainty by the grime-blinded window.
“You can stay here if you want,” said Nudge, “but it gets bog-fog cold.” She had a white sheen to her face that always looked chilled, but a blush on her nose tip illuminated the truth of her forecast.
The unopened compost sacks under Nathaniel’s anus complained. Woodlice scurried along the fractured roof truss keen to continue their destructive repair. He retracted his jaw behind the zip of his anorak and looped up his hood to become a Gothic revivalist monk. He glared a cursed blessing at Nudge. He’d frowned up with her in sickness and in stealth, in puddled play and in puerility, in curiosity and in killed cats. Much of their shared childhood had been in the gardens of the properties on Bohemia Way, though they each lived in the proletariat terrace past the junction with Ermine Street Lane. They had hardly ever been in each other’s houses but pounded nine-hundred-and-ninety thousand faun hoofprints trotting up and down Cluck Lane, a footpath and ancient right of way that threaded the northern boundary of their back gardens. Their barbarian raids into the grounds of their aspiring aristocratic neighbours had resulted in apples, raspberries, and profanities. These days the grand were not as aspirational, and the aspirational were not so grand. Bohemia Way was losing its way but 13A preserved its mystique. It had long been a house of speculation.
“She’s just a stewed old woman,” riffed Nudge. Just the thinnest traces of Celtic rhythms harmonised her intonation with that found in her parents’ Irish homeland.
“So are you,” said Nathaniel.
Nudge issued a rat stare, thought up a curse and stored it. Nathaniel had always played the officer role; she had always been a squaddie. She had always known her place, but never accepted it. She knew that she had always been the braver, the bigger risk-taker, the tougher. She’d persistently proved that, and the persistence persisted. “Do you think she’s old-old?”
Nudge nodded and her ebony head-bush worried arachnid webs and their weavers.
“I don’t know. She looked ancient. Deborah said she was living backwards.”
“My nanna had a spell for that.”
“Don’t be pathetic.”
“Was Deborah being pathetic?” She teased the pronunciation of Deborah as if stretching fleece into flatulence.
“Deborah can be as daft as a duck’s wet dream, for all I care. She’s a supernatural swan.”
Nudge twitched her quarter-pink beak. “You should spend the day with her. She might goose you.”
“It’s the safest place to be.”
“It’s the only place to be,” said Nathaniel, his mind making a wet canvas of the stained sagging womb of the deckchair slung on a fetish of ropes beneath the shed ceiling.
“That’s where the fecking gloom came from. Shove it back in her face.” Nudge moved the broom away from the door. “Or you could just go down the canal, throw yourself in and prove the old woman right.”
“I intend to do consummately nothing. It’s going to be a nothing day. A dearth of everything day. A dearth day.”
“And are you going to do that every eleventh of October from now on, ad infi-fecking-nitum? You said Mother Eartha didn’t say which year. She just said the date.”
“I’ll just take it one year at a time. This year will always be my last.”
“Nudge leaned the broom against the sack of cement that had been slung in the corner with good intentions almost a decade earlier but for the last seven years had been granite solid. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“I only saw the kitchen. And the hallway; and I wasn’t looking at that.”
“Deborah didn’t take you upstairs then?”
Nathaniel rocked his head back so that his eyes found plastic vulva bliss inside his hood. “I wish, I wish, I wish. But she took me straight to the kitchen and we drank Mother Eartha’s dead husband.”
“You did what? Drank to him, you mean.”
Nathaniel pushed his nose hard against the seam of his anorak hood, and inhaled deeply through his nostrils. The fabric flexed like a post-coital bat’s heart. “Daddy Eartha’s ashes were in the tea caddy. That’s what his widow told me.”
“What did it taste like?”
“Tea. And ash.”
“I want some of that,” said Nudge.
“It’s expensive,” said Nathaniel. “You have to learn your death day.”
Nudge studied the shed-wide webs. “I want some of that as well, that I do.”
Nathaniel’s head turtled out from his hood. “Maybe there’s a slow poison in the tea?”
Nudge’s face flashed an ecstatic shroud of expectation. “I’ll have ten sugars in mine.”
Nathaniel slinked his head back into his highwayman’s hood and masked his eyes with lids of desire. “Deborah drank it. Delectably, delightfully, divinely.” He heard the shed door rattle and slowly unsheathed his irises. There was no sign of Nudge. The broom slid from the solidified sack and rattled to the cracked timber floor, pointing towards the door.
Nathaniel remained in the shed all day. He ate Polo Mints, each one of which he first microscopically examined. He drank American Cream Soda after successfully slicing off the bottle top on the petrified concrete sack. He pissed, with intermittent accuracy, through a knot hole in the corner.
He had not brought anything to read. This was not an oversight. He thought it best that he should remain alert so that he could avoid accidental death and he was afraid that if he had become engrossed in a good book bad things might creep up on him. He watched the spiders and woodlice, the former always static, the latter continuously moving. He stored up that observation, wrapping it in a cocoon of turgidity so that it might metamorphosise into an expletive of fraudulent wisdom. He also stored up the term ‘fraudulent wisdom’ recognising that it was possibly the best bullet of pretension that he had thus far invented.
He then moved on to contemplating the notion of living backwards. Could it be possible? How would it work? It couldn’t be that a person literally did everything in reverse, so that they walked backwards, spoke backwards, spewed tea into cups and ingested turds into their anus. It couldn’t be that. But could it be that when you woke up in the morning it was yesterday rather than tomorrow? Would you remember the future but know nothing about the past? Could Mother Eartha be doing that? Could she have lived all her old age but still have to survive her youth? Fascinating. And if she was doing that, would she be getting wiser or more ignorant? Could she be getting naiver? Didn’t old people do that anyway? Didn’t they regenerate into children? Was living backwards the same as living forwards? If so, it could work.
He noticed that the concrete sack in the corner was not still sealed as he had thought, but had been punctured. Perhaps that’s where the damp had got in. Perhaps something had been prodded in and left to be incarcerated.
He began to worry about Nudge. He was hunkering to avoid Mother Eartha’s curse, but what if Nudge had inadvertently couriered the curse on his behalf? What if her kindness in letting him shelter in her shed had upset the cogs of fate and dislodged their motion onto her life-clock? What if she was now destined to not see out the day?
It got dark on mint number seven. It got very cold after mint nine, but he stayed until one mint past midnight.
Nudge had not come back.
Former drama teacher, fringe theatre producer and director, and author of novels, short stories and some non-fiction work. I now hawk my output under the moniker of uneasybooks.
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