Momento Mori (part one)

Looking back now at the whole sorry mess, I was lonely and at the same time liberated. I hadn’t slept alone in a bed for thirty odd years. I think the lad about town that I put away when I put on my morning suit and wed Pat, I think he just came back to remind me what his pleasures were and Honor, she ticked all his boxes…

 

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”

Mark Twain

vanitas

 

Apparently I’ve been on the outer edges of my sanity and reality has been a stranger to me. You want the honest truth? I’ve felt more alive this past…how longs it been? Days, months, years? I can’t quite focus my mind upon the timescales but the colours have been more vivid, the sensations more exciting, the music more compelling than any time since I can remember… but what do I know? Im just a simple, uneducated man. What do you see? You see a mental patient perhaps or just a vulnerable chap with a dicky heart. That’s not how I feel. In here, in my heart, I’m in my prime, a strong, handsome, fearless lion of a man. They don’t tell you that about getting old, that you don’t change on the inside. You look in the mirror now and you take a good look, for whatever age you are, the maggot of time is at work and where he leads, death follows.

Monday 24th October 2016

Pat squinted into the screen at me. I can’t get on with this face call, or whatever it’s called. They’re never properly looking at you. There’s a disconnect. Its like they’re talking to somebody else, not quite in the same dimension.

“You’re losing your colour”, she pronounced. (Ive only been back a fortnight).

“You’re not” I said. She’s leather brown now, like my sturdy boots. I get a shock everytime I see her these days; forget how old she is now. A ten year age gap seems so much wider now, but maybe that’s my vanity talking.

I said, “What the hell are you wearing?”

She flicked a ruffle of red polka dot at her shoulder.

“Im just off to me flamenco lessons with Gina”

“Oh arr? ‘Been shimmying your shoulders at Juan again?”, I joked, “I’ve told you woman your old enough to be his mother!”

She cackled. It’s good to see her laughing, good to see her pain free.

“Well if you’re that worried, hurry up home and I’ll shimmy more than me shoulders at you”. She leaned forward at the camera and wobbled her creased, brown cleavage at me.

“For the love of God, Pat, put ‘em away, you’ll crack the screen!”

She howled. The sound set Missy off barking and bouncing up at the laptop.

Pat mooned at her, “Oooh, is that my little girl?? Ooh Mommy misses you, yes she does. You keeping Daddy safe?”

“No,  she bloody well isn’t!” I scoffed, “First sign of a shadow and she cowers behind me trousers”

Pat sat up straight and alarmed,

“Has there been any trouble Mick? You’re not there to be a hero, you know that?”

I sighed,

“Its absolutely fine, duck. A couple of kids using the carpark for bike tricks and a bad Banksy tribute act. The usual fare.”

Pat pursed her lips, unconvinced. (I’m not sure she knows who Banksy is anyway).

“That’s all well and good love but you only went back to do them a favour. They must’ve found a replacement now?”

I didn’t tell her I’d talked to the Head only the day before. I didn’t say that I’d accepted a contract till the end of term. I don’t tell her much I realised. Like I didn’t tell her I was bored out of my mind, sat behind the bar of our so called ‘English Pub’ out there in the Spanish heat. She’s high on suntan lotion and castanets, she hadn’t even considered I might be less than satisfied. How could I tell her that I miss the seasons? Miss the clever chat in the staffroom? Miss rifling through the books in the school library? Miss doing practical things with my hands? Miss being valued? She doesn’t miss being a dinner lady, not for a second, but I have missed being the caretaker. When the new boy left under a cloud just before the beginning of term, the secretary emailed me, asked me, no begged me to step in while they found a suitable replacement. Be a caretaker caretaker if you like. When I arrived, The Head, Mrs Iqbal had alluded to the things that had gone on the new boy’s watch; something embarrassing for the school, something shameful and dark. Of course, I looked it up, just for information purposes. Mrs Iqbal had said,

“It’s so good to know the school is in such safe hands again. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you taking time from your own business. I do hope Pat isn’t annoyed with us for stealing you back a while?”

“Not at all, Mrs Iqbal” I had assured her.

“They’re taking advantage of you again Mick and you just let ‘em!”, Pat huffed and grimaced at the screen. The image of her went a bit squiffy as though to register her annoyance.

I shrugged,

“Listen love, I’d better go do my rounds now”.

“I thought you had all those cameras now?” She waved her arthritic fingers around to create her own special symbol for ‘new fangled’.

“The cameras can’t tell me when doors and windows are locked” I replied.

“You stay safe, Mick”, she commanded,  “And come home. Its not nearly as much fun without you here”

I found that hard to believe, but I blew her a kiss and closed the app. I looked down at Missy, her glossy black fur, her wide golden eyes and that dangerously happy tail whipping about.

“Go get your lead then” I said and she was off.

The nights were just beginning to draw in. There was that familiar nip in the air that means autumn’s coming. I remember thinking how good it’ll be to see another winter here again, all cosy, with my tools and my books and Classic FM…and I know it sounds bad, but nice not to have Pat banging on about the state of this country. Nice not to have to worry about her struggling with aches and pains. It felt then like a secret holiday…a guilty pleasure and I had a spring in my step.

I did the perimeter fence as the sky turned gold. The thick matte black metal panels of the fence reached high into the sky, like tiger stripes against the sunset. I rattled the back gate to check the padlock was intact. The alley behind it was empty but for the detritus of spliffs and cider and these little silver canisters, (God knows what they’re sniffing these days!). It’s a cut through that joins the housing estates. Its affectionately referred to as ‘cut throat alley’ by the kids and you can see why. Its just a long, dark, curving path with three lamps puncturing the shadows and scrubby bushes on the far side. I wouldn’t take that route and I can look after myself.

I let Missy have a mad half hour chasing squirrels across the playing fields, then I did my rounds of the classrooms. The corridor echoed to the sound of my boots. I felt like the king of the castle. I was testing doors and windows on the top floor when I first became aware of something odd. There’s a lovely studio room, right at the top of the building. Its where the older pupils work. There’s windows on three sides and they leave easels up in a circle, usually around a still life. Sometimes its flowers and fruit, other times its old engine parts and broken guitars, (no counting for taste eh?). This week, clearly in homage to Halloween there was a collection of ripe orange pumkins, green and cream gourds and dark plummy aubergines all tastefully arranged with plastic ivy. The centre piece is half a plastic skull, borrowed from the science department no doubt. I shall surprise you now by telling you that this kind of arrangement is called ‘Vanitas’ and was first popularised in Holland in the sixteenth century. I’m not as dumb as I look eh? Art appreciation is one of my passions, though I’d never go bragging about it. A few books and Youtube videos a professor does not make.

Anyway, Im explaining the layout of the studio. At the fourth wall there’s a small interior room jutting out, a later addition, an afterthought. It’s the darkroom. These days nobody thinks twice about snapping an image, but when I started here, the darkroom was where the kids learnt the eldritch and arcane art of photography. Its barely used now. More of a historic monument to an old artform. There was only one teacher left here who had any idea how to use that room, Honor Montgomery. One of her large velvety black and white images had been given pride of place on the corridor this term. It was a portrait of one her students, pale and wan with almost white hair and the flawless skin of youth, (she’s probably married with two kids now). The skin is dewy and transparent, and behind it you can just about trace the image of a skull. Honor explained how she achieved the effect when I was admiring it one parents evening. She rarely spoke much, so it sticks in my mind. She said it’s a question of combining two negatives, projecting them one after another onto the same paper. The trick she said, was ensuring that they lined up perfectly and also ensuring that the balance of exposure was enough to fool the eye into believing that both images belonged on the same plane. I wont pretend I understood her exactly, but I remember enjoying watching how her passion radiated from her, animating her hands and lighting up her eyes. I asked her why she didn’t use colour film. She put her head to one side,

“Honestly”, she said, “I think I live in black and white”. She batted her long black feathery eyelashes giggled and I just wanted to kiss her. It felt like it was just me and her enjoying a private moment. Then one of her colleagues shouted,

“Oi Moth, you’ve got a parent waiting for you!”…and the moment was broken.

She was affectionately called her ‘The Moth’ because she spent so much of her time in there in her darkroom. I think they were being a bit cruel to be honest, making reference to her shyness. I think it was probably out of jealousy. She was a good-looking woman, one of those effortlessly attractive types. Not some stick insect in too much slap, with inappropriately short skirts in an attempt to draw your eye. She was curvy and womanly like a black and white movie star – Absolute dickhead of a husband mind, (pardon my French). One of those arrogant, flashy sods who couldn’t keep it in his trousers. Ran off with a student teacher by all accounts. She was way too classy for him anyway. A posh sort, but never too high and mighty to forget her Ps and Qs. She was always grateful for help, always there with a ready smile for prince or pauper. I tell you if I were ten years younger and single….

I’d always meant to ask her to show me how to develop photos. I remember thinking, maybe I will this term, now I’ve got some spare time. Maybe I need a little hobby. Any road, as usual the art teachers had forgotten to lock the door to the studio. Literally any bugger could come in here, rifle around and find all manner of weapons; Stanley knives, scrivers, bodgers, bleach, not to mention the acid in the darkrooms, (Im guessing that its acid, it smells like acid around there). I shook my head, might’ve tutted a bit as I jangled my keys when the red light flicked on. It’s a light on top of the entrance to the darkroom. It’s there to stop people opening the door when someone’s developing. That much I do know. I’ll be honest it startled me. I dropped my keys. Missy started whining, picking up on my anxiety no doubt.

I opened the studio door and called out,

“Anybody in there?”

I wondered whether Honor had got carried away in there. I imagined her, bathed in red light staring intently into those baths of chemicals as images came through.

No response.. I rapped on the darkroom door firmly. I shouted,

“Honor? You in there? I’m locking up, its time to go”

Still nothing. Some insect started batting into the red light, its shadows sent Missy into a howl. I grasped the darkroom door handle and pushed, but it was locked. I decided that it must’ve been on all along, it just hadn’t been noticed in daylight. ‘Must’ve forgotten to switch the lights off when she left, I thought. I tried my keys. None of them fitted. I made a mental note to remind the art department to knock off all the lights before they go home and also to give me a spare key. Who knows, it might be my opportunity to start a conversation with Honor about photography lessons maybe.

It irked me to leave, knowing that that little red light meant that the lights were on in there chewing up electricity, but what could I do? As I closed and locked the studio door I heard a small click. I looked through the glass. The red light was off. Electricity faults were my first thought and even more of a worry than power usage. I’m a practical man, I don’t do mystery. It never occurred to me at that point that anything else was going on.

Back in my rooms at the back of the school, I’ll confess I was a bit rattled. I put the kettle on and flicked on the bank of monitors and methodically inspected all the feeds. Thirteen cameras feeding me dark, grey, grainy images of empty carparks and corridors. Nothing to see here, but to show willing, I changed to my reading glasses and leaned in to inspect every vista, every angle. Nada, as we say in Spain. I remember hearing the kettle reach its critical mass and click off. I reached out to my distance glasses and knocked them off the desk. I cursed and bent down to get them before Missy could have away with them. As I straightened up and swapped my specs something dark flashed across all the monitors at once, like dark wings fluttering. I don’t know whether it was adjusting to my lenses but I suddenly felt dizzy. I flopped back down on the chair, my head spinning. After a couple of seconds of panic, with ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind. I pulled myself together… well, okay, maybe it was a bit longer than a couple of seconds. Must get my blood pressure checked again, I thought. Must get it done before Pat gives me another lecture about my heart, I told myself and made a mental note to book an appointment. Having a heart attack in your fifties is no joke, I should know. It’s the main reason Pat managed to convince me to retire early…when I was vulnerable, lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to all manner of beeping devices. Options seemed very slim at the time.

Tuesday 25th October

That morning, with all the kids raging around the corridors like nutters I was screwing back in some perspex to prevent sticky fingers ruining the display of ghost stories and poems selected by the English department. I had forgotten all about the darkroom until I heard the familiar voice of Kevin Bolton, the head of the art department booming at the other end of the corridor. There was some hoohah going on by the lift. He was there in a flap. He’s a rather florid character, shall we say. I’ve never had any issue with that kind myself. As I see it, if your uncomfortable, you’ve got to ask yourself why. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, it’s a small rickety old lift that judders all the way and has been known to get stuck between floors. Kevin was trying to convince some pupils to go up in the lift with his art materials, so he didn’t have to. The kids are backing away, refusing, they no more want to take the risk than he does. He started getting cross because they wouldn’t do as he told them, but we all know that it was because he’s getting in a stew about the confined space. Just then, Honor wafts through the crowd, in a white silk blouse and a neat black skirt. The sight of her arrests me for a moment. She still had that ageless beauty, still ripe and in full bloom. Without saying a word to anyone she simply hops in the lift. Problem solved, but Kevin is still busy bollocking these kids. I step forward,

“Would you like me to escort your stock to the top floor, Mr Bolton?”

He has a look of mixed weather. He’s annoyed at being interrupted and relieved at being given an option. I smile at Honor. She gives me a small knowing look.

“Oh, very well, Mr Street”, he conceded.

“My pleasure” I respond, to the thanks that never came.

The rickety doors close and I am there ready to talk to Honor. Ready to tell her off about the red light, ready to ask her about photography lessons…but she’s too close. I notice her pendant, sitting on her pale, smooth skin. Its an opal or moonstone or something in a Victorian setting. I want to say something intelligent and informed about it, but then I might as well just admit I was looking down her blouse. She’s got her arms up then, adjusting her hair, twisting it up into a loose dark knot and sticking a pencil through it. I am right over her looking down. Her top button pops. She doesn’t notice but I can see now that she isn’t wearing a bra. I cannot peel my eyes away from the glorious view of her smooth white cleavage and the natural curve of heavy breasts. I’m willing another button to pop, imagining one of her soft pink nipples peeping out. I wonder whether she has any underwear on at all and that sends me in a whole other direction of images. I have a brief fantasy of the lift breaking down; the sticky heat of two bodies, her peeling her blouse open to show me those beautiful, big, round …and me cupping them, feeling their weight, then slowly stroking a hand up between her legs. But with a juddering halt, we are on the top floor. Needless to say, I couldn’t say a bloody word and was thankful for the boxes of Bolton’s paint that I began to unpack from the lift as a means of distracting myself. He was rounding the corner then, out of breath from the stairs, issuing directions as to where to put the boxes, (I had a few ideas of my own). I looked up and she’d gone on her way. I watched her disappearing down the corridor. She almost floated through the crowds. I had a word with myself about letting my imagination run away.

Before I left the floor, I mentioned to Kevin about the darkroom lights. He looked at me like I was deranged. I asked if he had a key and he got flustered, muttering something about ‘The Moth’ concealing all her dark secrets in that room. Then he caught himself, a look of shame on his face. He touched my arm apologising,

“I’m so sorry, I forgot!”

I shrugged his hand off and walked away annoyed. I wasn’t going to stand and listen to him trashing Honor! I walked past the studio in the direction that she’d gone, with the legitimate reason of asking her for a key. I looked through the open door and saw what I assumed must be a student teacher trying to gain the interest of the class of older kids. She sounded shrill and harassed. The kids were being sassy and disdainful. I peered round the door and spotted Honor perched on a bench observing the student teacher’s litany of mistakes with a benevolent smile. As she watched intently she swept a loose strand of hair behind her ear and crossed her legs. Her eyes flicked over to me a moment and I flushed with embarrassment and shuffled away, too ashamed now to ask her about the darkroom key. I decided I’d send her a polite email instead.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? I’ll not lie, I was in a strange place in my head. Many creative people swear by waking fantasies as a source of inspiration. If I’d been an artist, maybe I would have plunged my desires into a wild Expressionist painting, maybe Honor would be my muse. Perhaps I would’ve composed a grand opera around Honor, my tragic heroine. I’m just a simple, uneducated man though, so couldn’t put this madness to good use. Looking back now at the whole sorry mess, I was lonely and at the same time liberated. I hadn’t slept alone in a bed for thirty odd years. I think the lad about town that I put away when I put on my morning suit and wed Pat, I think he just came back to remind me what his pleasures were and Honor, she ticked all his boxes, that much had been proved years before. No fool like an old fool eh?

That evening my face chat with Pat was a bit peculiar. There was a bad connection and she kept stop-starting which was very disconcerting. Not nearly as disconcerting as her conversation though. Her opening gambit was,

“What have you been up to?”

(Honest to God that woman has supernatural powers!) I scrunched up my face like a teenager about to issue a bare-faced lie.

“What are you on about woman?” I baulked.

“I know you Michael Street. You’ve got that look…distracted and …guilty”

I shook my head feigning confusion. She huffed,

“Anyway, have they got your replacement yet?”

“Since Monday??? No, course not”

She leaned in to the screen then, all conspiratorial,

“Well, I suppose they have to be a bit careful after the last one….doggering all over the place”

“What??” I said, intrigued and amused. She shouted too loudly,

Doggering! I know you know what it means Mick”

“I’m not sure you do”, I sniggered, “Anyway, how do you know this?”

“Nevermind how I know”, she replied with deliberate mystery adding, “Apparently, it was all over the face book for all to see. He’d used those surveillance cameras, shot the load all over the internet”

“Uploaded Pat! For God sake, it’s called uploading!

I was crying with laughter by this time and could barely speak,

She waved her crooked hand in a ‘whatever’ motion,

“Anyhow, you keep your eyes peeled for odd types lurking around in the playing fields”, she instructed, “Dirty Herberts!”.

I was still tittering to myself half an hour later. I did my rounds quite sharpish but to be fair, I did view the playing fields in a whole new light. It was Pat’s innocence that was funny. The dogging though? It did make me feel quite uneasy that the school was being used for group… outdoor group sex. Was there anything like that in our day, I was trying to think. There was those legendary ‘car keys in a bowl’ parties that we’d all heard about but never been invited to. Just as well, I don’t think Pat would have enjoyed being the prize attached to a Hillman Imp keyring. I remember feeling rather proud of myself for being true to Pat all these years. But for one small moment of indiscretion I’d been the perfect husband…but that moment, it was burning bright in my mind that evening.

Missy was out of sorts probably cos I was a bit distracted. I was pleased to note though, on the art floor, the red light was off and all doors and windows were closed on the top floor. When I returned to my rooms I checked my emails once more. There was no reply yet from Honor. Well, as long as she switches everything off, what’s the harm in her keeping her key, I thought.

I think that was the first night I started having the dreams. I was having a lovely warm shower. I remember feeling really free and happy, when suddenly I realise that Im in the school showers by the gym and all the kids shouting and laughing outside. I scramble out of the shower but don’t have my clothes. What I thought was a towel is no more than a hand cloth which just about covers my privates. I stagger out of the showers into silent darkness. Now I’m cold and alone. I can see my own breath. I hear Honor giggle. Is she giggling at me? Her voice seems cruel somehow. I feel very vulnerable, but I have to find her in the darkness, I have to see her. I know she’s out there waiting for me. Out of the shadows a face appears, but it isn’t hers. It isn’t human. It’s a Halloween mask, a boar I think. Then another mask floats forward, this time a ghoulish clown. Then another horror mask, then another. They are floating around me. Something in me knows I am about to be eaten alive. I awoke in a cold sweat, my heart thumping like a war drum.

 

Wednesday 26th October 2016

I did get an email finally, but from Bolton, not Honor. It was a rant about the smell in the studio. He was wondering if the drains were blocked, or whether several dead pigeons were decomposing in the loft space. I went to investigate, plunger in one hand, wrench in the other. The art rooms are always a heady mix of smells; paints, thinners, printing inks, photography chemicals. Its hard to imagine how anyone could smell anything else on top of these aggressive aromas. I certainly couldn’t smell anything else. Still, I showed willing. I was in my overalls under the sink, loosening a connection. That student teacher was whining at the GCSE group but they were chatting as though she were invisible. She sounded humiliated and broken. I remember thinking, why on earth has Bolton given the exam group to this weak and feeble young woman? But what do I know, Im just the caretaker. That’s when a shadow caught my eye. Honor had wafted into the room unnoticed. She was wearing that silky white blouse and knee-length pencil skirt again. I caught my breath as she pushed herself up onto the cupboard beside the whiteboard. She was looking out intently at the kids but they didn’t seem to notice her either. I had a good vantage point down there at the sink. The ‘autumn fruits’ display in the middle of the room concealed me from view, but I could look straight through the gourds and there, framed, was Honor. She leaned back on the display of over-sized shell drawings and crossed her legs. Her skirt rode up an inch or so. I imagined there was no one there but me, under the sink and her perched like a pearly goddess by the whiteboard, entirely unaware of my presence. It was at that point that I realised to my dismay, my imagination had veered dangerously into a cheap porno movie. I started sniggering to myself. Some of the kids started looking around bemused. Some of them were pulling faces at each other, nudging each other and smirking, others were laughing at me. The student teacher took it very badly that I was drawing attention. You could see it in her face that she wanted to blame me for the fact that no bugger was listening to her. I shrugged an apology at her, though I’m not really sure what for……when there’s this loud, flat, splatty sound. Suddenly every kids head has spun around and they’re all laughing. Some are shrieking with delight others are tittering nervously. The blocked sink had yielded its load of gloopy red acrylic paint all over my overalls. I look like a serial killer in a bad slasher movie. The student teacher looked utterly exasperated at me, as though up until that point she had had perfect calm and order in the room…as though I had been responsible for ruining her lesson.

Bolton was not convinced that the job had been done. At morning break he walked with me sniffing the air. I decided his nose must be a finer tuned instrument than mine, although to be fair I did see a couple of bluebottles buzzing around, which is often a sign of decay. He asked me if I’d checked the darkroom. I just nodded. It seemed easier to lie and get Honor to let me in later. After he turned on his heels in the direction of his office, I scouted about a bit looking for her. I wanted to have a quiet word, but she was nowhere to be found. There was that memory, long buried, surfacing again. A bright and dark memory. It wouldn’t go away. It was in the corner of my eye, everywhere I turned.

Pat tried to call me several times that evening. I sent her a text to say I had a migraine, which only meant she sent me worried texts on the hour every hour. In truth, I didn’t want to speak to her. There were thoughts and history, a story with Honor that were troubling me. A memory that Pat, her face and her voice would sully and shame. It was a small moment, an opportunity never taken, a fork in the road that had far more significance in my mind at that point than it probably should’ve done. Seeing her again had shone a bright light on it and I wanted to savour it, that small moment when everything could’ve changed. In hindsight, I was hiding as much from myself as I was from Pat. You must never underestimate the power of the mind. Bright lights cast dark shadows.

Author: Eve Finney-Love

A night writer, compelled to share the stories that descend in the wee small hours.

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