Russell Grimley

“You want your usual?” 

“Has she been in yet?”  Russell Grimley was on edge.  Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.

“Marika?  No.   She don’t come in this early.  You want your usual?”

Russell gave a single eyebrow response.  Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive.   “And coffee.”  Sol completed his order for him.  “I’ll get it for you.”

Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery. 

He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana.   Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode.  However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore.   Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?

“Does it hurt?”   Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off.  Russell yelped.

“When did you first notice this?”  The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.

“A couple of nights ago.”

“It was the pain, you felt?”

“No.  It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that.  I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something.  Then, last night, worse.”

“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long.  In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics.  Any allergies?”

#

Mr.  Greybasin, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely.   At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.  

“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr.  Cringey…”

“Grimley.”

“It says here you are Cringey.  Are you not Cringey?  You seem to have the same complaint?”

“Never mind.  Cringey will suffice.  Can we do something?  This is getting worse!”

Worse?   Much worse.  The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback.   At work, his specially made jackets and his built-up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.

Mr Greybasin turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.

“Your case is most interesting.   Most int-er-est-ing.   Yes.  The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome.   Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”

“No!”

“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae.  There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”

“What are you saying –  I’m like the Elephant Man?   Can’t you do anything?”

“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”

#

In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable.  His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts at sleeping, as had always been his custom, on his back.  What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability.  Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.

“You don’t look well, Russell!  Why  are you walking so odd?   Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”

Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him.   And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony.   One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.

Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back.  His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street.  Unconsciousness, sweeping over him in a merciful grey veil, was his saviour at last.

#

In time he must wake, Russell told himself:whilst wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment.   Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones.  Was he awake after all?  Was he drugged?

Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again.  He tried turning his head to one side.  Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense.  He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realized, being Sol Abrahams’ nose!   So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognize Sol, a moment more to see that the café proprietor, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him.  There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!

#

Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk.   “Let’s get this straight.”  He said.  “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”

“Yes.  Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.”  Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult.  “I panicked!”

You panicked?   Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window?  And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”

“These?”   Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders.  They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.

“Don’t!”  Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created.  “Don’t flap those things in here!”

“I didn’t think!  I mean, when did I learn to fly like that?  I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all.  It all seemed so natural.  Will he be all right?”

“I won’t lie to you.  It was a heart attack.   He’s doing OK.   But what the hell do I do with you?  Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again.  So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”

“You could call my doctor.  He’s been following my case.”

#

Mr Greybasin’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided.   Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes.   Eventually Mr Grebasin looked up.

“There can be no doubt about it.”  He said.  “You are a bird.”

“Is it curable?”  Russell asked.

#

The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage.  His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration. 

His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition:  “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”

Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide.  The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss the smirk upon her face, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.

Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties.  She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge.  Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks.  And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped.  Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait?  No, there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent.  In May, they ceased altogether.

“It’s a miracle!”  Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage.  “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last.  I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

Out of Darkness

The pavement is narrow here.  They elbow against him as they pass.  He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children.  Nervous laughter, child laughter.

“I’m not frightened of an old man!”  One of them says.  “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee?  You’re a paedophile, mister!  Dirty old ****!”

Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him.  I am old, he protests in the silence of himself.  That is my only crime.  The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion.  He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years.  Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age.  Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply.  He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again.  Is not learning a virtue in itself?

“Did you pick up your pills?”  His wife asks, knowing.

“No.”  Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there?  “I forgot.  I can get them tomorrow.”

She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express.  She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both.  But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity.  Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility.  She has her own life, her ordered world.  She has her friends, she has her faith:  he has none.

He will not detain her long, she tells those friends.  Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust.  Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past.  He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name.  He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.

He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before.  There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs.  He is the only customer.   A waitress brings coffee to his table.  Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met.  She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure.  Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence.  Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.

He starts back, alarmed at his transgression.  He stammers:   “I’m sorry!  I don’t know what came over me!”

Her reply is gentle.  “It’s all right.  It’s meant to be.”

She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face.   Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.

“I know you.”  He says, although if he were truthful he does not.

“Do you?”  Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”

He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.

And he wakes.

For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful.   When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him?  And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?

But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again.  A week passes, then two.  He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair.  All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.

Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again.  “You do not know me, but you will.”

The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning.  It is a promise.  For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.

In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on  his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember.  He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.

With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey.   When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance.  He rests content.

Phtot Credit:  Alex Blajan at Unsplash

 

 

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