The following tale, ‘A Skulk’, was first published in Lightship Anthology 2 (as a work of fiction, written by me, though I made no attempt to deceive the compilers…).
In 2002, a friend of mine, Jan Potocki, a musician and film maker, called me to arrange meeting. He said he’d happened across something he thought would interest me.
We met in a small pub in Bethnal Green, selected for its wide range of Continental beers on tap, a rarer thing then, than now. We had a long discussion about Béla Tarr’s staggering Werckmeister Harmonies, about its weird, oneiric imagery; we’d both been compelled, but bemused, by the film. Then, Jan took, from his bag, a sheaf of mouldering A4 sheets, gave it to me. It was a short typewritten document, in, what I took to be, Polish. I looked quizzically at him.
‘I found it,’ he explained, ‘under a bush, on Tooting Bec Common, while out running. Seeing my native tongue, I was intrigued, took it home.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s…’ he said, then broke off to light a cigarette.
‘Well, you can see for yourself,’ he continued, after the pause. ‘I’ve translated it for you.’
He took out several sheets of feint-ruled paper covered in his neat hand, passed them to me.
‘Read it, let me know what you think.’
I did. It is one of the most disturbing tales in my possession.
Soundtrack: K’an, ‘Arsons Beneath Eclipsed Waters’
In the glare of the streetlights, the drizzle looked like sparks from a weld. Waclaw, on his way home from a late night working at the site (the project – a block of flats, in a grating contemporary idiom, bordering Tooting Bec Common – was behind schedule, over-budget), was walking along the edge of the parkland. Passing a tunnel through a railway embankment, he heard wild laughter, dull crackling, and, beneath, growling. He peered over, saw that several youths, baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts, had penned an old vixen against the mouldering brickwork under the arch and were fleering at her, lobbing squibs. She was grizzled about the maw, scrawny, fur mangy; her ribs were in frantic spasm. Cowering back from the fireworks, she turned her head this way and that, snarling, tattered ears pricked.
Waclaw, though sickened, was mindful of the teenagers’ violent air and the day’s wages in cash in his pocket, and, shaking his head, turned up the collar of his pea coat, kept on, head down.
But, then he heard a yelp, glanced askance to see blood welling from a gash to the vixen’s side and a glint of steel, a chef’s knife, and stopped, stared on. One of the gang darted at the fox, kicked her in the head. She tottered, fell down in the filth, lay on her side, whining.
As Waclaw stood there racked, a woman crawled out from under a nearby bush, and ran, stumbling, toward the youths. She was barefoot, wore a scanty, tattered floral shirt-dress and a number of charm necklaces and bracelets that jingled as she ran. It was hard to gauge her years, for her face was caked with grime, but Waclaw hazarded she was perhaps in her late thirties. A pennant of red hair flew behind her.
‘No,’ she howled. ‘Leave her alone.’
Her voice was rasping, like that of a heavy smoker or someone unused to speaking, and her accent was generic south London, though with a faint trace of upper class drawl. The teenagers turned to face her; the youth who held the knife stepped forward from the pack.
When the woman closed with them, she tried to push her way through to the fox, but was tripped. The gang closed round, giggling, lashing out with their feet.
It occurred to Waclaw later, that, had he been a settled Londoner, he might well have turned away, gone home. But he had not been long in the city, was an interloper, illegal, incorporeal, conducted himself according to the mores of the place he still thought of as home, a kinder society, was not yet inured.
‘Hey!’ he challenged.
The gang, as one, snapped their heads round to look at him. The one with the knife – gangling, grease-glistening pimply face – yelled back, chin jutting, ‘What?’
‘You should leave her alone.’
‘You should fuck off.’
The pack sniggered behind their hands, eyes gleaming, then crossed over to Waclaw, slowly, insolently. He held his ground. Behind them, the woman was moaning low.
A squall gusted across the common; Waclaw narrowed his eyes against the driven rain. The youth with the knife darted forwards, slashed one way, stabbed the other. Waclaw dodged, but had been thrown by the feint; the blade struck him a glancing blow on the upper right arm, sliced through the thick wool of his overcoat, his jumper, and his shirt, and into the flesh beneath. The lout backed off, stood hacking at the air. At first it only stung, but when Waclaw looked down and saw the welling blood, he felt a searing pain and winced back.
The youth advanced again, but, tripping, stumbled. Seizing on this, Waclaw stepped forward, struck out, knocked him down. Then crouched, wrested away the weapon, rushed the rest of the gang, scattering them, before wedging the blade between two paving slabs, snapping it off at the heel, and hurling the handle across the common.
The fallen lout got unsteadily to his feet, tottered off after the rest. Looking over, Waclaw saw the woman lay prone, the fox on haunches beside her, licking her face. He crossed to her. Nearing, he could see her shoulders heaving and hear her sobs. The vixen’s flank was blotched with darker red where her fur was matted with blood.
Crouching beside the woman, Waclaw put his hand on her arm.
‘Are you alright?’
She choked her whimpers, turned to look at him.
Studied close up, she had a certain pinched prettiness. Waclaw was attracted to her. Her dress had ridden up, exposed the pale flesh of her thighs.
He held out his hand. She took it, and he helped her up. She was very short; Waclaw, though not tall, dwarfed her. Her dress was dishevelled and filthy, her hair tousled, but apart from a bruise mottling her check, she seemed unhurt. She reached down to pet the vixen’s mealy muzzle, then looked up at Waclaw.
‘Where are you from? No, don’t tell me.’
She winced, pressed the heels of her hands to her temples.
‘Shush… Poland, yes, but where? Ah, it’s Poznań. But you weren’t born there, were you?’
She grimaced, groaned, hunched over clutching her stomach. Concerned, Waclaw stepped towards her, but she waved him back.
She stood straight once more, glared at him.
‘You were born in Sosnowiec. In the bedroom of an apartment on the seventh floor of an concrete tower block. It was snowing heavily that day; drifts made the streets impassable. Your mother was attended throughout her labour, which lasted nearly eighteen hours, by the old woman from the flat next door, who’d been a midwife, and, during the Second World War, fought with the resistance in Warsaw, spent weeks hiding from Nazis in the city’s sewers.
‘After you were born, when the old woman had cut and tied off your umbilical cord, cleaned you up, and handed you back to your mother, something remarkable happened. The snow stopped falling, the sun broke through the cloud cover, lighting a white-swaddled world, and a large bird, with jet plumage and a bright red pouch at its throat, alighted on the balcony rail outside the window, perched there a moment, nostrils ghosting the air, peering in with beady eyes, then nodded its head, as if to bless the birth, flung out its wings, and swooped down, out of sight. At least that’s how your mother tells it. She thought the bird some odd kind of stork.
‘Am I right?’
Waclaw stared at her.
‘I am, I can tell. Don’t worry, I’m not going to eat you.’
‘Just an expression. By the way, the bird? It was a frigate bird escaped from a zoo in Katowice. It died, froze to death, not long after your mother saw it.’
She turned and began walking off across the wet grass.
She paused, turned back.
‘Oh, and you’re Waclaw, aren’t you? I’m Melanie. I’ll look out for you.’
Her large nipples could be seen through the rain-sodden fabric of her dress, and Waclaw’s brain throbbed with desire. She stifled a giggle with her hand, then fleeted away, the fox scampering in her wake.
To be continued…