Cover design Andrew Bartlett Creative Design Cover Photo by Douglas Kirwan

By Valerie Kirwan

This extract has been rearranged for an online short story.

At school he never spoke. When a new teacher asked him his name the boy behind him said, "He's ignorant. He won't talk." When he still didn't speak the new teacher said, "I have a name for you then. It's Insolence. Mr Insolence." His closed mouth drove the teachers mad but he behaved himself so they could not punish him. He ran home and told his mother that he had ridden on the backs of wild red animals. He went to his room, drew things with his finger on the walls...

When he was ten he met Annie Cuthbertson in a mossy lane. Alongside the railway line. A loose paling under a building. Crawled in. It was a long box-like space. Rather like a coffin. No room to roll around in. Terrible. They could hear trains. His mother found them and belted him with the hard back of a hairbrush. Said that one day he would be condemned...

... His grandmother was Italian. The windows of her house were always dirty but she had wind chimes in her garden. He and his sister, Daulcie were made to visit their grandmother until she died. She had a funny musty cupboard in her house which went through to another room. It was dark and poky in that cupboard and he always thought he would die before he got into the room. But Daulcie dragged him with her. The room on the other side was full of old-fashioned dolls which his grandmother had kept. They had red lips and net and satinish dresses. Once he was in the room he was all right. They played doctors with the dolls. He would pull up their dresses and watch Daulcie's face.

There was a chair in the room which was always covered by a big white sheet and when Daulcie lifted up the sheet, they saw wooden dolls carved into the chair. Daulcie said they were demons. They frightened the life out of him because they had no faces and they had very big penis like things. His mother said they were put there to punish and terrify naughty children who looked under the sheet.

When he was twelve his grandmother locked the cupboard door on him to punish him. He could hear them laughing in the next room. He could hear her wind chimes in the garden. It was like being buried alive in a tomb. After that, walls and cupboards and chairs seemed spiteful...This was 1934, just before his father died. "You've been a good boy, Henry. I've been lucky with you. I know they locked you in that room but you're out now and you should see the world afresh. Anyway, don't worry about the world Henry." Then he died.

For the next 25 years Henry led an uneventful life,one day the same as the next, living alone, working as a base clerk, taking solitary strolls through the park and going shopping on Saturday mornings. He saved money by bringing toilet rolls home from work and living on cheap broken biscuits.He didn't mix with the other clerks. They always had interesting things to say. He didn't.

In 1959 things changed. It all started when he was befriended by Arb. Henry didn't like Arb but he was the only person who visited him. He took Henry to a very queer place where there were women. There was a neon sign outside a door. It was a low door and the passageway was long and narrow. They seemed to be in this passageway for ages and Henry felt as if he was suffocating.

Finally they came through to a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a two-storey building with lots of little rooms. Henry started to hold back but Arb held him tightly. "What is this place?" Henry asked. A fearful shiver went through him.

Arb took Henry upstairs to a room with a soft carpet and walls hidden by pink satin curtains. There was an old bed in the room. They had to sit on it together because there weren't any chairs. Henry had his best suit on. Three women came in one after the other. They paraded around the room in a kind of a dance. One was very slender. Like a young schoolgirl. She looked at Henry and giggled. Arb muttered something like "Smug bitch."

" Do you want Henry to fuck you?" he asked her.
"Yes, I want him to fuck me," she said. But Henry could tell she did not.
"He'll fuck you all right but not the way you think," Arb said, a very nasty malicious tone in his voice.

Henry went into a sweat but then she left and another woman came in.

"Did you like her Henry, the one that just left?" Arb asked. "Did that innocent little idiot turn you on?"
"Yes," Henry said.

The next girl was called Babs. She was wearing a skin tight costume. She rolled around on the floor and stuck her behind up in the air. She was very silent but Arb threw money at her and yelled at her. She had no expression on her face. Just dead. Henry walked over to her. Arb pulled him away.

"Don't be sneaky," he had the rotten cheek to say to him. "O.k., that's all," he said to her.
She looked at Arb and shrugged. She lit up a cigarette and walked out. She had a little red tassel on her behind.

The third woman wore long black gloves and a black veil. While she was parading around a man came in with two glasses and a bottle of scotch on a tray. Arb and Henry both drank a glass of straight scotch. The woman leapt in the air and wiggled her hips and her breasts. Henry couldn't see her expression because of the black net covering her face.

A terrible laugh came out of him. It was very high pitched and he felt nervous but then he caught his breath.

The woman laughed too. He had some more to drink. He wanted to tell her all about himself but he'd never been able to speak to people, especially women so he just sat on the edge of the bed.

The woman stopped dancing. Arb embraced her. He told Henry to wait for him outside the door. Henry went out and Babs was in the passage smoking a cigarette. He was embarrassed but he tried to strike up a conversation. Smiled at her and said, "It's very kind of you to let me come here."

Arb came out of the room and they left.

A few weeks later Arb took Henry there again. He told Henry he was not to touch anybody. Henry thought about poking everybody under the arms and between the buttocks with his stick, he always carried this stick, especially when he went to the beach or to the park, but he didn't do anything...

...Had some work rejected at the office. Had to do three pages of the balance sheet again. That had never happened in his life before. Didn't leave the office until 6.10. One day he wasn't feeling well. He rang and asked them did they mind if he came in late. They said they didn't mind because he hadn't taken sick leave for a long time. He arrived at work at 11.30, his stomach burning. Somebody put on the radio at lunch time. That made him angry. The weeks went by slowly. In the weekends he lay on his bed, thinking about things...

...It was a cold night and they were both wearing overcoats. Although they asked him Henry would not take off his coat. For some reason Arb had Henry standing on the bed with him. Henry did not know that Arb was about to torment him.

Henry said he couldn't talk unless the women stood behind the pink curtains where he could not see them. They did, but he still could not talk.

Shelley, the one who looked like a schoolgirl, giggled.
"He's a kook," she said.

Henry found out then why Arb wanted him to stand on the bed. Arb opened the drapes directly behind them. There was either another room or a dark closet or something on the other side of the curtains. Whatever it was it had extended into blackness. And there was a naked young... woman... female... in there. She was glossy. Very pink. Her head was back so that her hair... it was light red coloured hair... her hair and her breasts were shaking... unmistakable laughter. Mocking him. He asked if he could go in there. He wondered what it would be like to touch her skin. There must have been some sort of pink light shining on her because it was suddenly switched off. Arb said, "No Henry, you cannot go in there. She is not remotely interested in you. She is only interested in me." Then he pulled the curtains back into place.

Henry was not the type of man to go charging into places where he was not wanted. So instead he got down from the bed and went over to where the drapes were lapping at Shelley's face. And for the first time in his life he began to talk to somebody at length. He didn't know what came over him but he talked to Shelley about this glossy pink young woman. He told her how somebody had once pinned a photo of a similar looking woman in his locker at work and he thought it an odd coincidence. He said to Shelley, "I crushed the photo..."

Arb dragged him back to the bed again but he kept talking. "I screwed it into a tiny ball. For a moment I thought I should put it in the hands of a superior because the waste paper basket worried me. Anybody could go through it. But when I was walking past Miriam Bellamy's desk I dropped it into a wire tray. I was relieved to think that I had lost it. I glanced at Miss Bellamy once or twice. Nothing happened. By five o'clock I felt a little bit disappointed..."

"Oh come on," somebody said. "As if there aren't a million clerks in this city with pin up photos in their lockers."
He didn't answer.

The next day he bought a beef rissole in a bun with sauce. There was a knock at the door. He didn't move from the kitchen. He put the bun down on the kitchen table, stared straight ahead. He noticed that the kitchen walls were grubby. He had fat fingers, thick, three times as big as Arb's. It suddenly dawned on him that he was a lot stronger than Arb. He unwrapped the bun, bit off a lump. Still that knocking. He sat there eating his beef bun with sauce. He heard footsteps walking away. Sometimes he complained to the council about his neighbours.

Towards the end of the year there was one final visit.

There were a lot more people in the room this time. There was a big woman...Henry was sure he had seen her before, naked, under a red net. There was a lot of alcohol that evening. He had a glass of port. There was a dark woman sending a shiver through him. She was in leopard skin. She had holes cut out in her dress for her bare breasts to come through. She called herself Queenie.

"Drink some more, Henry," she said. "You can go anywhere you want to go in this room." Then she stared at him with those big black eyes and he felt anxious.

Everyone in the room was giggling, babbling, buzzing like a swarm of flies. Their faces were red from too much drinking. The dark woman came up close to him again, put her lips next to his ear. She repeated herself. "You can go anywhere you want to go." He wished she hadn't said that. If he could have just touched her without any talking but now she had gone too far. He suddenly felt that like this very room here, he had seen her somewhere else. And that was the world she was talking about, where she wanted him to go now. He wished that he was at home watching the TV like he usually did every night. Not that he watched exactly, he liked flitting from channel to channel. "Don't you want me?" she asked.

A wave of sickish helplessness swept over him. Her face and her bare breasts made him dizzy. For a moment he thought her hair brushed his face. Very black and soft. Then he could not help himself. It was as if they made him do it, the people in the room. They were burning sticks of odd perfume and refilling his glass and singing drunken songs. And it was as if he had to admit to himself that all his life he'd had little thoughts which he kept padlocked... now a torrent of words bulged up in his mouth and it was as if there was a stranger speaking... he told them how the other clerks joked behind his back, called him a dumb little dago, how they whispered about a secret room where lots of things went on besides beer drinking...And his mother, when the spring came she stood on the table to dust the ceiling, scrubbed the floors with a harsh grating sound, pummeled her sheets in a tub of brown soapy water. My son, she said, you are a useless stick in the desert. His father panted in the garden.

Annie... somewhere in a lane... then years later, accidentally walking past that secret room at work, he had caught a glimpse of her soft brown hair...

...Closed his eyes, expecting ridicule, but everyone was silent. And he realised then he had won them, had their sympathy. He had been entertaining. He didn't know he could do it. They were not laughing at him. They had closed in on him and in that moment he realized something else. Suddenly he realized what he was. My God, he was a story-teller. Only in secret of course, with people like these. A special story-teller. And all the while he was telling this story with a great gentleness, he was thinking how very slowly he would move in on the lot of them. Had a few more things to say then he knew he could do what he liked.

He started off again, went carefully. "This room. Silk curtains bulging out. Just like now."
"What room, Henry?"
"This room... I've been here before ... before you brought me."
"But you can't have."
"This room, that room, it's all the same. I am not stupid. You were all here. There was a candle flickering. And... there was a chair. Bring me the chair. A carved chair. On either end of the back piece...two carved figures. Both figures had female breasts and male... male things... very huge organs and the like... the little figures had no faces. Terrified the life out of me. Their faces were just smooth wood... And you were here, you were naked," he said to the big red net woman, making a story-telling gesture with his hands. "Petals falling from something onto the table... petals dropping from your breasts..." Not exactly what he had seen, just threw it in to see what they would do. "Where's the chair? Get the chair. Get the table. Bring it here. A dark polished table." He was getting worked up. They were going to find out about him now. "Get the chair."

Somebody said, "There's no chair."
"There must be," he said.
"Listen," snapped Arb "If they say there's no chair..."
But then he screamed. "I sat in that carved chair like a dead man. When they locked me in the doll's room and tried to suffocate me...I'm shy with women but it's coming..."

Hold on Henry, he said to himself. Hold on. Let them worry themselves sick over this bloody table and chair. They'll be running around for more than tables and chairs next time, that's for certain. You'll be master here next time you visit. You can wait until then. Give them time to think about it, to prepare themselves for your coming. The coming of the story-teller. Next time they would see...

...The people in his grandmother's old house have made a complaint against him. They say that he pestered their little girl. Arb told him not to worry. He swears he was with him and says all he did was ask about that old cupboard and some special room and two little faceless wooden dolls.

Hasn't seen Arb lately. Henry would never go to that place without him. Can't even find it. Sometimes in the evenings he walks past the shops. There is a shop with a grimy window and he is sure that once when he passed it he heard tinkling bells like wind chimes.

My next story, he tells himself, will be about an old woman who locks little boys in cupboards.

The weeks go by slowly. Often now he works late at the office. In the week-ends he lies on his bed, thinking about things. Waiting.

Valerie Kirwan. THE STORY TELLER


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