Winter had arrived, had squatted down hard and the old Hamerton Millhouse was frozen, filled with chills skiffed off the rump of Raven’s Ait and Dylan, perched on the table, legs wide, sniffing fingers as his steel cap sampled the door’s creak and his mouth snapped with the whys, never the hows and the best thing — Diane couldn’t care, the question was an old toad, a lifted wheel, it served only to remind her that, ignorant or not, she still got paid.
Four weeks previous, as Diane hurried along the high breach wall, the Thames hidden behind — a dog, a beloved collie, panting around the gantry piles and buoys, its fur matted with the slime sliding from the smoggy sky and Diane patted it, in her mind patted it, scratched its ear and strode on, up the beheader’s steps, around the banker’s hat and down towards the exclamation that was Hamerton Millhouse.
Dylan greeted her at the gates.
Scanned her ID and led her across a leafy courtyard, up concrete steps to an office in its attic. The office was tiny, narrow as a galley kitchen and stank from the damp that bloomed and spiraled across every wall. The room was dark, illuminated by a window no wider than an envelope and practically empty, furnished with only a wooden chair and a plastic table that to Diane seemed better suited to outdoors. Upon the table sat a bland contraption, constructed from mahogany and a stainless-steel facia plate mounted with two knobs — one red, one blue. Above each knob was an LCD bulb and from its back hung two cables, one leading to an electrical socket, the other running up the wall and disappearing through a hole drilled in the plaster cornice. The console looked like technology from a different era and disguised its purpose thoroughly, carrying not a single sign or symbol to indicate its function.
“Here,” said Dylan, pointing at the chair. Diane took off her coat and sat. Dylan laid a hand upon the box.
“Seems simple yeah,” he said, shaking his head.
“Simple. When the light flashes red, you turn the red knob. When it flashes blue, the blue one. But here’s the thing — you can’t faddle daddle.”
“Quick, you need to be quick, you need to Con. Cen. Trate. You need to pounce.”
“Imagine a tiger, its children are starving, its mate is dead. Above the sun is devilish hot and then… moving through the grass.”
Diane had no idea what he was talking about. “Got it,” she said.
“One hour for lunch, if you take longer, I’ll know. And see those doors we passed — authorised personnel only . . . ”
“What does it do?”
“The box, what does it do?”
“Authorised personnel only,” he repeated, ignoring the question, “and you Diane are not authorised, so don’t go sniffin’ about.”
Dylan stood, looking suddenly very serious.
“Please understand, lives may depend on what happens in this room,” he said and tapping the table, took one last look around and backed out of the room, leaving her alone in the grotty half-light.
Diane pulled up her chair, rested her chin and began to watch the box. By any standard the job was odd, and it pained her that she accommodated its strangeness so readily. But desperation was its own consolation — what choice did she have since her husband’s illness had nullified the unspoken and equitable contract apportioning their endeavours. Now she jumped like a starving cat at whatever the agency offered — senseless work, gruelling work, work that left her self-esteem in shreds. No matter, as long as it secured the roof above their heads, her answer was always yes yes yes.
And then, on the fourth day, Tiffin arrived.
A cruel wind swirling outside and inside the office trilled with draughts as Diane shook before the console wearing so many jumpers she resembled a large brown egg. As she sat rubbing eyes raw from the perpetual study (still neither bulb had flashed) she heard a rustling and scratching, a scramble of tiny feet from the corner of the room. A mouse, she guessed, but was too afraid to confirm it and groping in her bag, pinched off a corner of a sandwich and threw it down. She heard it chew and sigh and called it Tiffin (due to the time) and because she loved the word and would have loved to stop for tea.
Diane begged Tiffin to stay but by lunchtime she was gone, so she sat again, before the loophole and ate and drank and watched the boats go by — the ferries like glass houses and thumping barges and swinging on two legs, lost herself to the pendulums of hull and water, until catching the time, returned to the table and settled again before the box.
Before she left that night, she crawled beneath the table, dragged herself along the skirting board until she found Tiffin’s hole. It was no bigger than a plum tomato and littered with dead insects and crumbs. No meal for a mouse, she thought and decided tomorrow she would bring the wheel of brie she’d been saving for Christmas.
The bus ride home was hot and wet and so violent, Diane wished she owned a brace. As she stepped down to the pavement, she decided to take the long way home and wandered past the cemetery and butcher’s yard, the abandoned building site, giving each her full attention and finding these studied places, normally obscured by familiarity, far too strange. As she turned into her road, she saw Doctor Murray’s ancient green convertible parked outside her house and her guilty heart sank.
To Diane, her dissidence felt like a sty, a shoe stone, a skelf wedged between nail and skin: she hated the Doctor, hated that he called so often, but had to admit the succour he brought, to her husband and by extension herself, was beyond price. He would be in the lounge now, treating him, snipping away the fibres grown thick as party straws from his belly and groin. Then moisturising the holes and blocking them with the grey putty he carried in jam jars around his neck and that later Diane would spend hours picking from the sofa.
Diane turned her key carefully and crept inside, attempting to avoid summoning the doctor who would, whenever possible, corner her, place hands upon her shoulders and whisper to her in a language she didn’t understand. He terrified Diane, huge beneath his cape, a wardrobe of a man, his eyes like paws, his moustache looped about his ears and bulging like a bird feeder. And always that reek, his cologne, a mixture of lavender and yeast. It had infiltrated the house so conclusively, to Diane’s disgust, it now smelt like home. To save herself, she learned to skulk from room to room, like an intruder in her own house.
Her husband was no help, he became more distant each day. ‘I’m a discreet fellow’ he would say whenever she enquired after his health and clutching his head, would roll into a ball and remain that way until she left. Later she would hear him pacing and singing, typing and shuffling papers — his illness had become his opus, Diane would find watercolours and poems stuffed behind radiators and cushions all dedicated to it and although thematically mawkish and crudely executed she studied them avidly since they afforded her the only insight into his suffering.
As Diane crept past the lounge she heard snippets of conversation — Chopin — such a fool, Graston cottage what a view! And that idiot baker — no perspective, and Diane, Diane, Diane — mouth like two horns and how do you stand it. Ignoring it all, she walked through to the kitchen, opened the French doors, and headed down to the shed.
Three barrel locks, one padlock — she had to be careful. And then, despite the spiders and rats, she sat before the console she’d built from a gramophone and two candles, turning dials over and over, hour after hour, until she heard the front door slam and the Doctor’s cars fire up and buzz away. Only then would she blow out the candles and return to the house.
Soon a routine developed beyond the common peg and each day Diane would bring cheese for Tiffin, who, prompt at eleven, would arrive to eat, then curl around her feet, bringing warmth and happiness and Diane reciprocated, bringing her rarer, more delicious titbits each day.
Four weeks of numbness and silence passed before Diane saw Dylan again. She heard the clip of his cork lifts, his door cards clonking and throwing open the door, down he sat, without introduction and immediately she asked him about the box, what it did, and Dylan replied with important and all of its synonyms but still made no sense.
“Work, work work,” he said, “there’s more to life, Diane,” and apropos of nothing, began to rhapsodise about his love for hunting. “We go out most nights,” he said, and turning his phone, showed her pictures of his dog — Buster — and his trophies — rabbits and foxes lined up and limp and lit by headlights. Diane leaned back, away from the stink of his words.
As he droned on, Diane heard Tiffin scratching and munching on the Stilton she’d bought the previous day and thrown by Dylan’s presence, she turned, searching her out and Dylan’s eyes followed and seeing Tiffin, he yanked something from his pocket and flicked it down, hitting her with a thump and pinning her to the skirting board.
Diane flinched, saw Tiffin wasn’t a mouse at all and wondered how it had ever contained life, ever drawn breath.
“Filthy fucking things,” said Dylan and bending down, plucked up the weapon and whipped it against his sleeve.
Diane grabbed at the edges of her chair, a bone anchor no match for the waves of rage and tearing up the box, swung it, striking Dylan’s temple. He stood a moment with a baffled look, then thrust out a hand, placing his full weight on the table’s edge so it pitched and spun and but for his boots, covered him as he fell upon the floor.
Diane ran from the office, twisting along the corridor, shouting for help and hammering doors and when no answer came, she flung them open to find others like her, sitting wide eyed and shivering before identical boxes. “Please Help me,” she begged, but none responded, would even turn, so on she ran, down the steps, through the gates and all the way home.
She hit the head of her road expecting to see the Doctor’s car ticking down, parked askew, but the pavement was clear, an uncanny void before the laurel bush and she dismissed it — a burst tyre, a dead battery, a taxi taken and flinging open the door, called for him, needing him, this fucking once, but no answer came and she flew from room to room, concerned for her husband, never the Doctor and finding no one, walked through to the kitchen and here, on the table, balanced between condiments, she found a once folded, hand written note.
My dearest Diane,
I am very much afraid I have left you and placed myself entirely under Jeff’s (Doctor Murray) care. Jeff (Doctor Murray) opines that his constant attention will be my only salvation and so to facilitate, I will live with him henceforth at Graston cottage. Unfortunately, I see no sense in pretending it would be pertinent for us to meet or talk again, so this, my dear Diane, is my final goodbye.
Your loving husband,
Diane folded the letter and placed it back between the salt and pepper pots. She poured a glass of wine and sat awhile, listening to her house, the hallway ahead, its silence officious between the clock’s clonk and above, the bathroom’s orderly drip and beneath, the lounge, the Doctor’s room, covered in boot marks and cologne and empty now, it muttered to her, sleepy and soft.
Behind her, the garden, tethered to darkness by birch and maple and to Diane, unknowable. Simple? It really is simple, she thought and finishing the last of the wine, she turned off the lights and stepped outside.
GJ HART currently lives and works in London and has had stories published in The Molotov Cocktail, The Harpoon Review and others. He can be found arguing with himself over @gj_hart.