A model citizen
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Claude took a swig of beer and waited for the impulse to take another. It came not long after and was followed by a third.
"We have nowt in common Stevie. How do we manage to get by eh?"
He took a quick succession of bitter swigs from the glass and eased gas out of his stomach in a slow, uncomfortable burp.
"I could tell you one of my stories i suppose."
Traffic hummed heavily outside in the golden avenue. Pedestrians peered in though the pub window, blinking.
"There was one guy who had a demon called Horace Stinewell. A big fat sinner, passed over and left behind. Wanna `hear about him,
A slender group of girls flapped through the pubs double glass doors, and smiled at nothing in particular. Claude watched them as he
finished his drink and fought back the urge to regurgitate the frothy dregs.
"Suit yourself Stevie, i was just going to make it up anyway."
The girls had taken their colours and shapes with them to the glint of the bar and Claude scraped his chair on the wood floor as he
set about following them.
"Stay here Stevie, i`ll just be a sec`."
Steve tried to steer his mind towards safer shores once he was alone. He hoped this would allow him to move enough away from Claude.
He was wrong. All he succeeded in doing was crashing the boat into one of the bigger sharks. It responded by showing the saw
blade of its mouth and calling his name.
It was the creepiest sound he had ever heard, and reminded him of a sink emptying.
He grabbed the wheel and twisted it left.
"They look like nice girls don`t they Stevie. Would you like to take one home with us? You decide which one this time."
Claude set his new pint of black ale, next to Steves slack hands, on the smooth circle of the table and dragged his chair back under him.
"How about the blonde with the tight top? She would look good on the carousel wouldn`t she? Or how about....OH...did i see a flicker
of desire there Stevie? I think i did. Blondie it is then."
He sipped his pint, tipping its white dog collar, and left a line of it on his top lip.
"Shall we take her now or shall i finish my drink first?"
Steve felt the boat rock as Claude joined him on the tiny poop deck. He saw the sharks beating their sharp tails against the surf and the
side of the boat. He found himself unable to stare at the depths.
"Shove over Stevie, i`ll take us to shore.There`s booty in the cargo-hold my lad."
Claude sent him reeling against the mast like a wax figure. He had at least a chance to move now. The good it would do him.
"Sit back and see if our treasure is comfy will you lad? don`t want it to spoil."
Wind had caught the soiled sheet of the sail and now the tiny craft was on its way again, cutting through the mass of water with
a speed that had nothing to do with the power of the wind.
Claude slipped his dead face over his right shoulder and watched Steve.
"Come on Stevie or i`ll keel haul yer`. Check the cargo!"
Steves hands started to crawl around the mast and then he was making his way to the pale blue box, which was as large as a chest, and worn from years of use. He knelt in front of its brass handle and watched the grey sky and the grubby sea toppling back and forth behind it.
It was a scene that cried out to be appreciated and he found himself doing so.
He knew what he had to do.
And had to force himself to do it.
The handle was cold and so smooth it felt buttery. He pulled the lid up and exposed its swirling underside of colours.
"Is she safe and sound Stevie-weevie?"
Steve closed the lid as soflty as he could. It still made a heavy thunk against the solid vessel.
"She`s alright, yeah."
"Good, goood Stevie lad gooood."
The island rose from the slap of the sea and Steve felt his heart turn to stone, pumping oil through his veins now, cold and thick.
It was at least an English island. Something plucked from the tip of Scotland, spirited away without anyone to know any different.
It had no yellow sand and no coral. Just a mass of black rocks and oak trees.
For some reason, this seemed to Steve, a blessing.
"Home sweet home Stevie, and another friend to share our fire."
Steve felt the words force their way in and he had little option but to hear them.
Claudes words at best were cruel, but when the cargo-hold was full they took on more than their fair share of meaning. Steve knew
full well what their intentions were and tried, not for the first time, to throw out the sickening knowledge. It held its place, like one of the gigantic limpets on Claudes face.
"Don`t you just love the sea Stevie? I know i do and i know it loves you too, eh?"
Steve kept his attention on the green scenery as the boat slipped through a natural gash in the islands structure and came to rest beside the wooden dock. To Steve it always looked like it had been stolen from the side of a park pond.
In fact, he decided, it definitely had been.
And the implications crawled into his thoughts.
Hadn`t he realised this before? Yesterday? When he had been watching the carousel spinning?
Claude grabbed his arm and hefted him up painfully, and easily; as if he weighed no more than the clothes he was wearing.
"You run along now Stevie and get the fire on, we have a new guest, and she will want a nice fire to cook herself in front of."
Steve found himself surrounded by the flashing darkness for a moment and then he was elsewhere, by the pile of logs that sat by the black
and white mass of the carousel.
It called to him as soon as it noticed he had returned. Making itself known. Becoming that much darker maybe, or that much brighter.
By now though, he had learned not to look at it, unless Claude forced him to. Instead he hid the thing behind his upturned coat collar, as he bent to pick up the can of petrol.
"Needs refilling soon, Stevie."
Claudes voice had found it`s way here before him, no doubt due to the woman. Steve had known Claude to spend hours on the walk up from
the dock when he had a new citizen accompanying him. Some needed the extra time to understand just what they were looking at. To fully appreciate it.
Claude liked to show off his works.
The petrol splashed against the pile of logs and trickled down the thick skinned limbs, darkening their colour with jagged stinking worms. The matches were in the small metal cabinet by Claudes tartan armchair and Steve rifled through a collection of necklaces and wristwatches to find them, struggling to untangle them from Claudes booty. Sometimes he thought the necklaces and wristwatches were only put there to annoy him.
The match box had a ship on the front. A galleon much larger than Claudes. But not much different in style. He took one of the blue headed matches from its identical brothers and struck it on the side of the box.
He loved that smell.
"I like that smell too Stevie. Quick now boy she`s stopped her yelling and crying, light that fire before the clouds turn black."
Steve tossed the tiny living flame, with its thin delicate neck, into the pile of logs, and watched the flame catch on. It was like yellow ink spreading through swirling water.
"Good, we can see our way now boy, soon we shall be with you, safe and sound."
What did it mean?
Steve screwed the slimey top back on the now empty petrol can, feeling the heat thicken and gather between him and the quivvering, jagged shape of the carousel. He plonked the can down by Claudes colourful chair and sat back into his own, smaller chair. It had been a long day.
"The day is far from over lad, especially for young Claire here."
They always offered up their names to him, once they had seen the walk up from the harbour. He had been spared that theft at least, Although everything else had been taken from him.
No, he had given his name freely to Claude. Demanded that its intonation be used as often as possible to this, once, fantastic creature.
To hear his own name muttered, whispered, screamed by this thing had filled his soul with a kind of perverse pride, that had only found comparison when he had, at last, gained admittance to the holy of holies: his gods name.
His true title.
He had laughed at first. Claude? Just Claude?
Of course, he had no surname. No Self-respecting god had a surname.
Oh, how he had laughed.
How foolish that moment, that long lost moment, now seemed.
A spark exploded in the fire. Shooting upwards hopefully, then succumbing to the coldness of the darkening plateau of the sky.
"Ahhh, yessssss, see Claire? It`s not all so black is it? Not all so utterly dead? You`ll love the carousel, just wait `til you see it.
spinning and spining and spinning... what? Of course, of course you are allowed to ride the carousel, you can ride the carousel."
Steve watched the flames rise, and part of him wished he was such a simple example of life. To be beyond any use other than to form a blazing dance of destruction.
That`s what fire was of course, he had to admit it. It was the embodiment of constructive death, disbodiment of...
"BOY! We are close,and soon we shall have a new friend to warm by the fire. ARE THE LOGS ABLAZING?"
Steve nodded, knowing the affirmation would be seen and stared at anything but the carousel.
It was beginning to make its heavy creaking now that Claude was near. Soon it would start to turn.
"Claire liked the Widow arches, Stevie. Just like you did eh? Maybe she would make a good teller for the bank."
He remembered the Widow arches. It was the Widow arches that eventually stopped his screaming. It was something to do with their utter deadness and misery. You just couldn`t feel your own pain when you were confronted with that particular sight, on the walk up to the fire, and the carousel.
"Here we are Claire, look at that fire, eh? Stevies done us proud and proper. He`s a good lad is Stevie."
Steve turned his head, not in greeting but because Claude liked him to take an interest in any new catch. And he had to admit this one did interest him. She had caught his eye as soon as she had walked into the pub.
She looked dreadful now however. All part of the course. The walk up from the harbour has no mercy. It had taken from her and given back something she would never forget. It showed in her tired eyes, that were aimed only upon one thing. Not him and not the blast of the fire.
"It`s the carousel." She said, as if it meant the world to her; and Steve knew it would be.
The carousel knew it also. It began to perform its function for her, slowly at first, but gathering speed with every turn.
Steve knew this without having to see it. He could hear its wooden voice as its runners and wheels worked against one another, forming a song of strained oak that repeated itself relentlessly, until speed had merged each individual note into a senseless, hollow rhythm.
"Time to take a ride Claire." Claude said, putting his grey, water swollen hand on her shoulder.
She looked up to his terrible face, not smiling, not frowning.
"How? It`s going too fast now."
Claude and Claire vanished then, and almost immediately the carousels wooden song took on a set of deeper notes, forming a new rhyme. It called to Steve and all who`d listen, to its dead and endless melody.
Soon Steve could hear Claires choked laughter, intertwining a rusty screech through the heavy, blunt clatter, as one of the nooses tightened around her neck.
"She likes it Stevie, almost as much as you did."
And Steve was forced to look, through the pitch dark, and the raging of the fire at the bodies, swinging around and around Claude.
"Time to switch the town lights on Stevie-lad. You have the honours."
Steve trotted to to the small hillock, barely illuminated by the reaching arms of the fire, and peered out onto an infinite blackness.
He knew that the town was out there and stretched to the very crumbling edge of the island, yet it gave no clues as to its prescence.
It hid, cowering, holding its breath. Waiting for the inevitable.
"Ponder its alleys, wander its avenues, fondle its streets. See its shop windows light up and display their wares to us. We have another
citizen for it to find work for."
Steve knew the pattern by now but he still found it a task to picture the Cathedral of the Moons exact position on the map. Was it keeping watch over the cinemas choice of entertainment? Or was it bursting out of the slate roofed streets where Helen lived? That made more sense he decided and he was right, the town lights slowly began to glow. Claude could make it happen much faster and make the bulbs shine
much brighter, but he was beginning to get the hang of it.
"Mmm. Not bad eh Claire? He`ll be spinning the carousel next."
The streets were coming to life as the electricity flowed; music from Astrids shop on the corner of Crow street, the sound of gun fire from the depths of the cinema, doors slamming shut and windows clicking open wherever life was lurking. Eventually the odd car lit up and took off on its business.
It was almost ready for them. Just one last detail. The pathway down to the town.
"I`ll do this one Stevie, don`t want you getting us lost do we eh?"
Claude and Claire joined Steve on the hillock and almost immediately the pathway lamps began to blaze a meandering route to the gates of the town, joining onto the streetlights; which began to glow as bright as they were meant to.
"Nice and shiney and alive, eh Claire? Now let`s go and find you a lovely place to work."
Claude pulled Claire by the arm and began to drag her along between the old fashioned lamp posts towards the town. He was
laughing as he did so and Steve thought that maybe Claire was laughing too, but already they were out of ear shot. Steve followed on
as quick as he could without breaking into a run, hoping that he could catch up before they lost him in the tangle of the streets, which had happened before, when Simone had arrived, a year ago.
"Come on Stevie-weevie or i`ll lock you up with Pc Pritchard for a few days, he`s always had a soft spot for you he has."
And Claude began to laugh again, with his slight gargle.
Stevie caught up to them outside Mrs Mc Neils bun shop. Claire was reading the chalky words on the menu propped up in the window.
"Later Claire, later. i want to pay a visit on Karen first. She only started working at the cinema last week and i want to see if she`s picked up the ropes yet. Come on Stevie, we`ll see if there is anything worth watching while we`re at it."
And they were off again.
The town began to have its way on Steves senses by the time they were on the corner of Gate road. Mrs Ainsworth passed them by reading a little yellow book that whispered its sentences to Steve, whever he liked it or not.Things about her adventures in the town, her many many adventures.
He shook his head hard to dislodges the images and tried to keep up with Claude and Claire. She looked like a rag doll now, silouhettted in the blazing headlamps of the Number thirteen bus. Which, as Steve knew full well was being driven by old Harold.
"Look Claire, look at the faces of the people on that bus eh? You`ll be like them one day. Horrible isn`t it."
The bus chugged by and took its wide eyed passengers on another mystery tour. Maybe to the cliff tops or perhaps through the woods.
"Shall we take her to the pet shop Stevie? Or is that too soon eh?"
Claude pulled his doll across Parchment Street, to where the pet shops curved glass frontage connected it to the main road. Black plants had splattered their leaves against the glass, and finding nowhere else to go had entwined around themselves and each other. As Steve watched he thought he saw some of the leaves starting to die and flop down suddenly; or at least something was moving amongst the dark foliage. Perhaps the gloved hands of Mr Gliffen.
"Looks busy in there Stevie, maybe later."
And they were off again, past the greengrocers and Annies haberdasherers, gleaming with pins, and past Mrs Andrews and her bags of shopping. They crossed the road by the statue of the dead Fisherman, crawling with blackbirds, and took a short cut through an alley between Astrids shop and the Jolly monk tavern. The alley was a thin passageway filled with a mixture of the plummy smell of rum and the angelic tribulations of a castrato ensemble.
"Head for the light Claire there`s a smart lass, nevermind that thing hung up, just Pc Pritchard having a game on us."
Steve saw nothing hanging up but felt something wet brush forcefully against his face. He had never been this way before and he had no desire to do so again. The sound of the choir and the stench of the rum had given him doubts about which direction they were travelling in. He was sure they had turned a corner or two, perhaps more. He could see nothing but Claudes back and the occasional crack of streetlight swinging away.
"Here we are, safe and sound."
And so they were. The alley had spat them out onto Gelder street;a quieter part of the town and somewhere Claude always ended up, no matter what route he took. Steve liked it here too, so long as Claude was with him. There were fewer lights out here and less people. In fact, right now they were the sum total of citizens in Gelder street.
Steve had an idea why, and it wasn`t all Claudes doing either. The streets had a much steeper attitude here and there, as if obeying the craggy contours of the island rather than replacing them. Most of the town was as flat as a pancake, but here buildings had uneven bases, sloping rooves, and walls that seemed to stretch or squash themselves to fill the available dips and peaks. Claude always took longer to walk this part of town. And a sense of relief found its way into his voice.
"Let`s just peer through the odd window or two Stevie eh? See what my happy citizens are doing to fill their happy time."
He took Claire towards a thin house, one of many thin houses, and smiling he rapped on the glass of the window with his overgrown nails. They sounded like cardboard, wet cardboard.
But it was enough to bring the household from its slumber. Claude could hear things being moved around beyond the glass.
"Hello dear ones, hello inside, hello."
Steve watched Claires face. She was clearly uncertain as to what Claude was up to or whether it was a wise thing. but her doubts turned to glee when the household had slid back the curtains and let the light shine out from their tiny living room.
"Ah, Mrs Beasley and her husband have found a son for themselves have they? Such a tall boy too. I wonder where he sprang from? The cinema toilets maybe? The drains outside the butchers? Or even perhaps Mr Gliffen could enlighten us eh, Claire?"
Claude turned his half yellow, half grey face towards Steve. A comical look peering out from the cracks between limpets and other things.
"I wonder if it`s because they left their Christmas lights on too long eh Stevie? Maybe that`s where he came from. A bit of food perhaps, that rolled under the tree, and the constant twinkle of out of season decorations shining on it could do a thing like that you know."
Steve had to look now and Claude gave him room at the window.
But as he peered through at the fairy lights and the thin, hairy skeleton being fought over by its stunted parents, the curtains began
to close. Steve was left with the sound of the sons whining screams, muffled by glass, to tell the story.
"If only we had more time for this Stevie. But the main attraction starts in five minutes and we have yet to check up on the new ticket seller. Come along, you saucy teenagers you. Popcorn`s on me."
The cinemas slightly curved rooftop was an emerald bubble caught amongst black slate and the suggestion of tv ariels. It sat below them in Stock road, growing and then finally disappearing as they descended Gelder street. The sky was starless and moonless, just as in the day it was sunless.
"Feel that atmosphere. Pure anticipation."
Steve stared at Claire as they walked. She had never once looked at him he realised, not since the carousel. He wondered if she was even able to look at him now. Some of them couldn`t at first. Then suddenly, as if turning on a light, they did. And then they were properly a citizen, as far as he was concerned. It wasn`t always an advantage for him. They could stop his eyes watching them and that had to be bad, for him. What else was he supposed to do with them? Talk?
Sometimes he wanted to show them that he was more than one of Claudes model citizens. But so far had felt uncertain as to how Claude himself would see such a venture.
Hadn`t he actually tried to show them before?
Faint images floated, filled with an emotion he couldn`t put a name to.
"Claires dying to see the cinema aren`t you Claire. What kind of films did you like to watch eh? Films with dresses and diamonds? Horses and bears and pigs all running around getting into bother?"
Then they were outside the dark shape of the cinema.
It always looked derelict to Steve, the brickwork appearing to be covered in soot and the display alcoves hidden by grimey glass. None of the posters seemed to want to convey any idea of what films were being shown, prefering to flap their thick shreds, that in places had shrunken into curls.
The doors were always open, exposing caverns of red felt. Fat circular lamps sat in the thick walls showing tunnels, inviting you in. He looked now and saw it all again.
The only difference was the ticket booth, glowing just inside the doorway. It had a vague occupant spoiling the square of light.
"Ah, Karen. Dear, dear Karen, how is she i wonder?"
They were near enough for her to hear the question now. But she chose not to answer.
Claude sauntered up to her doorless box and slipped his grey hand through the slot in the glass. Some kind of noise, like a parrots
idea of a laugh, escaped the box. Claude looked over his shoulder at Steve and Claire. And then looked back to the business at hand.
"Three for the main attraction please Karen, there`s a good lass."
The shadow behind the glass ducked down and then back up in one quick motion, before twisting away to the right. It stayed like
that only for a few seconds, then it ducked down again and then back up.
Finally it turned to Claude and shoved something through the slot in the glass. Claude took the long, flat white thing and pocketted it quickly.
Then he was bringing his form back over to Steve and Claire, looking pleased enough to smile and make the limpets around his mouth tighten for better purchase.
"She`ll do just fine in there. Let`s go in and find a seat."
It was his joke; there were always more than enough empty seats.
"This way today people, follow the stench of decay."
After a series long red tunnels and several deliberate wrong turns they were stood at the serrated pinnacle of the auditorium, looking down upon the mass of red curtains, drooling like wine, waiting to part. They were jerking ever so slightly in impatience, rippling along their dark lengths, eager to unveils their wares to the paying public.And that, as far as Steve could see, meant just the three of them;unless there were customers in the shadows he couldn `t see. Something like a man could have been standing at the back, under the exit sign.
Claude lead them down the centre aisle towards the front rows. He liked to get close to the action without a sea of heads in his vision.
They chose a seat each, claude sitting at the far end and Claire in the middle.
Claude took a deep breath and smiled, looking at Steve.
"Mmmm, smell that popcorn...DAMN! i forgot the popcorn WHY DIDN`T YOU REMIND ME YOU STUPID IDIOT?"
Claude shoved Claire to one side and grabbed Steves t-shirt, ripping it wide open.
"Come on Claire, get it over with."
She was instantly on Steve, licking at his naked shoulder and neck, grabbing him tight to her. Soon she was panting and whining as she kissed his ears and face leaving a pattern of soreness that blossomed.
At some point the film had begun, indicating it`s hidden presence with a savage assortment of male and female screams. Steve vaguely realised, through a dense barrier of pleasure, that some of the screams were Claires.
He didn`t so quickly understand that the others may well have been his.
Get used to it? No, you never get used to it.