Hello there. The title for this short story comes from @lafemmeflaneuse . I hope you enjoy it.
You want to know how he got to be like that, that’s it, isn’t it? Now, I don’t mind telling you I did it. That’s fine. But I want to explain how it was that I came to be there, why I did what I did. You don’t have to believe me. I don’t expect you to. But you are going to sit here and listen to what I have to tell you.
You know my record. You know what I was in for; you’ve got my bloody file there in front of you. You can see I did six years for hitting that bloke. It wasn’t my fault he died; I didn’t know he had that condition, whatever it was. I didn’t even know he did die until they caught up with me at the pub two hours later. And obviously I’m not the first man ever to give up on boxing and get paid to hit people outside of the ring. But that’s not important. That time I was away, that’s not important either. The important thing came when I got out. I needed to find a job. I needed to pay my way, but I had nothing and nobody would give me the time of day. Not my parents. Not my old friends. And I couldn’t call Liz; she’d told me to leave her be. She didn’t want the boy to get confused. So I was alone.
I was living on the few quid I’d saved before I got put away but it was running out faster than I’d hoped. The day I met him I was sitting in Gina’s café drinking a cup of shit tea and feeling sorry for myself. Then in he walked. Sat down opposite me, grinned at me like he knew me. The stink of his aftershave wafted over the table. White hair slicked back over his scalp, wrinkles so deep you could hide things in them. Teeth yellow and cracked like old boiled sweets.
“Hello, Jimmy,” he said. “How are you doing, son?” I gave him a nod and told him I was doing alright. I thought he was mental, I thought maybe he’d just go away. But he leaned over the table with that grin. “I heard you got out, Jimmy, and I thought I’d pay you a visit. Now, don’t look at me like that, that won’t do. It’s good news, Jimmy. I want to help you. I want to give you a job.”
Of course, that was the magic word, that was. He might be a nutter, I thought, but if he’s got some cash to throw my way I can put up with a nutter for a bit. So I asked him how he knew my name.
“Oh, I know all about you. I know about that thing that they charged you for. I heard all about that. We’ve got friends in common, you and me. You know Mikey Brinch? Your old mate Mikey? He told me that you got out the other day and I know what that’s like. I know that it can be difficult to lay your hands on some money. And as luck would have it, I need someone handy. I’ve got something that you might be interested in. I’ve got a job and I’ve got a place for you to stay, rent-free. Now, tell me you’re not interested in that, eh?”
There was something about his grin; I just couldn’t keep eye contact with him. But the way he talked, the sentences running into each other, I couldn’t interrupt him. I had to wait till he’d finished before I could answer.
“I don’t know what Mikey told you about me but I’m not interested in anything…” I let the words tail off but he knew what I meant.
“Oh, don’t worry, Jimmy, I’m not going to ask you to rob a bank or anything. Jesus! Look, I’ve got a shop on Old Fork Road and I’ve had some trouble recently. Nothing too drastic but I could do with someone around the place who can handle himself if anyone takes it upon themselves to come round and start some trouble. And sadly, old bastard that I am, I’m not exactly up to it myself these days.”
Protection. That was what he was asking me for. Looking at him, I was pretty sure he could handle himself. He might have been old but there was a look in his eye that told me that he would definitely be capable of picked up a piece of cutlery and ramming it into my eye if he thought I was going to nick his wallet. He patted the table and stood up.
“Look, why don’t you just come round and have a look at the shop with me. I’ll show you the room and I’ll tell you exactly what I need from you. You can tell me what you think is a fair price for your services and if we agree, you can move in right away. If not, we’ll go our separate ways? How’s that?”
I didn’t like him. I didn’t trust him. But I wasn’t in a situation where I could be choosy about who I liked and trust wasn’t a luxury I’d had in a long time. So I agreed. He thrust out his hand. “The name’s Ayres.”
Old Fork Road was a twenty minute walk from Gina’s. Ayres prattled on the whole way about this and that. The changing face of London. The effect that global warming was having on the weather. The fact that his doctor wouldn’t let him eat bacon any more. All sorts of bollocks. I walked along with him and nodded at the right moments and was bloody relieved when we finally got there.
He unlocked the front door and took down the “Back in 10 minutes sign”. God knows how long he’d actually been away for. His shop was a newsagent, basically. You’ve been round there tonight, you’ve seen it. Magazines, fags, sweets, stationery, key cutting, all that stuff. Whatever you need when you can’t be arsed to walk to the supermarket. There’s so much stuff there that there’s barely room to swing a cat. He had one of those “5 children allowed at one time” signs up in the window, but I don’t think any kids ever came in. They were probably scared of him and that grin of his. Once he’d given me the tour of the shop he took me through to the back. On the right was a small stockroom, with another door which went down the basement (“Where the stuff I can’t shift lives”), and directly ahead was a flight of scabbily-carpeted stairs which curled sharply round to the left.
There were four rooms upstairs: his bedroom, a living room which doubled as a kitchen, a windowless bathroom, and a second bedroom. He opened the door with a grand sweep and laughed. “All this could be yours,” he told me. It was nothing special. A single bed, a bookcase, a small radiator and a large window looking out onto the street. I hadn’t expected anything better and I’d been scared of something worse.
We went through to the sitting room, where he took a seat in an armchair and directed me towards the sofa.
“What’s this trouble, then?” I asked. He shrugged.
“Hard to say, really, Jimmy. It’s difficult to know what to expect. Might be nothing at all, might be something serious. But, like I said, I hear you can handle yourself, so I’d like you here in case of emergency.”
“So no one’s made any specific threats?”
“No, not specifically. Like I said, there’s been a bit of trouble recently and I’m scared of a reoccurrence.” He shifted forward in his armchair. “Look, tell you what. I’ll pay you for a week, right now. During this week you can leave whenever you want if you don’t like it. I think you’ll see very quickly whether it’s for you or not, and I won’t judge you if you want to leave.”
He was making it very difficult for me to say no to him. He made it even more difficult when he put a grand in cash in my hands. “For the week, mind. We can discuss your fees again as and when you decide you want to continue.”
What choice did I have? I said yes. I went straight over to my hostel and grabbed my things from the locker. I went round my mum’s and posted a note through the door with the address of Ayres’ shop, in case she needed to find me. Then I was back, unpacking the few things I had. Once I’d finished I went back down into the shop. Ayres was standing behind the counter reading the paper. He glanced up as I came in and nodded. “You get squared away alright?” he asked. I told him I had and asked if there was anything I could do. “You’re doing it, son. Read the papers or magazines if you want, we close at nine.”
The day went slowly. Ayres had about three customers an hour until six o’clock and I’d guess about twenty people came in. I had no idea how he was making money. Finally nine o’clock came and he locked the door, flipped the sign, and we went upstairs. He heated up two of those ready-made chicken tikkas, the supermarket ones, and then we settled down in front of the telly. He flicked through the channels until he came across a black and white film with subtitles. I’ve never had much time for films but when I do I normally go for comedies. But Ayres got all excited when he saw this film was on. “Have you seen Seven Samurai before?” he asked. I shook my head. “You’re in for a treat, my son, watch this.” So I moved a little closer to the edge of my seat so I could read the subtitles, and I got involved.
It was a long fucking film. But I could see why Ayres was so excited about it. When it was over he clapped his hands and looked at me, grinning away. “Bloody masterpiece, that is. I love that film. What did you think?” When I told him I agreed he clapped me on the shoulder. “Good, good. See, you’re getting more than money out of this arrangement, Jim. You’re getting an education in classic cinema. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Let me know if you have any problems during the night.” I was going to ask him what he meant by problems but he was gone before I could. I put it down to his general strangeness and went off to bed.
I never slept well inside and it’s not a habit I’ve been able to shake. I wake up every hour or so then drift back to sleep. Any little noise will wake me up. So when there was the sound of something small falling to the floor in the shop below, I was out of bed like a shot. This was what I was being paid for. If someone was downstairs, I was going to get them out.
I don’t like violence at all. I never enjoyed hurting people, but I got paid to do it. It was as simple as that. Ayres’ had hired me and I was going to deliver. I’m not trying to big myself up but I can handle myself, and as I went downstairs but I knew that I could handle a confrontation if there was one. But it wasn’t a simple confrontation I had to deal with.
I peered round the bottom of the stairs to try and see what was what. Through the racks and shelves I could clearly see a figure by the door. Someone was inside, trespassing, so there was no need to play it quiet. I barged in, making as much noise as possible, shouting for whoever it was to get the fuck out now or I would beat the living shit out of them. The figure turned and I stopped shouting.
Standing in front of me, ready for a fight, was a bloody samurai. I am not making this up. There could be no doubt about it. Toshiro Mifune, or Kikuchiyo, I remember he was called, stood by the pick and mix at the counter. That’s not all. Not only was there a samurai standing there, he was in black and white and his edges were flickering. Obviously this wasn’t possible. It was a dream. I rubbed my eyes and this slightly grainy figure was still standing about six feet from me. A voice inside my head was telling me that there was no way a black and white samurai was there, but instinct made me duck as this monochrome fucking fictional character took his sword out from its sheath and ran at me.
I rolled behind the counter and reached for the bat that I’d seen stashed there earlier. The samurai’s sword crashed down above me, smashing the RSPCA change tin and sending copper change flying. I darted back out and swung the bat at his legs. I heard his left shin crack and he cried out in Japanese. As he went stumbling backwards his feet skidded on the coin and he tipped backwards, dropping his sword with a clatter on the floor. That same instinct that had saved my neck earlier told me to drop the bat and pick up the sword. As the samurai regained his balance I drove the point of his sword into his chest. The samurai staggered and fell without a word. I prodded him with my bare foot. He was dead.
I stood there staring at him for roughly five minutes. Then I woke up Ayres and dragged him, muttering, downstairs. I pointed at the samurai lying dead on his shop floor. He rubbed his eyes.
“Toshiro Mifune. That’s a first. Come upstairs, I’ll make us a drink. Leave him; he’ll be gone in a minute.”
Up in the living room, Ayres poured me a large whiskey and sat me down. My hands were still shaking and I still wasn’t convinced that I was actually awake.
“Right, how best to explain this…This is what I’m paying you for” he told me. “This…incident is an example of the trouble I was talking about. You see, Jimmy, I’ve recently discovered I have a remarkable gift. Everyone wishes their dreams would come true. Well, mine do. They…what’s the word, they manifest. Physically. But it’s not exactly a blessing. The dreams, these figures that are made real, they’re violent, they’re murderous. The first time it happened I woke up and my best friend from school had his hands around my throat. I assume Toshiro attacked you, rather than the other way around, right? I can’t explain why this is happening; I only know that it is. Maybe it’s punishment for something. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. Maybe it’s a freak fucking accident. But I need protection. I can’t handle them by myself. I need you.”
I let him talk. I let him explain, as much as he could. It was obvious that there was a lot he didn’t know. There was one question I had that was particularly pressing.
“Am I replacing anyone?” I asked. “I mean, have you had someone doing this for you before?”
“Oh, plenty,” he said. “Most left after a week or two, they couldn’t handle it. And sadly a couple of them have died.”
So there was my answer.
“You can still walk away, Jim. You can keep the thousand. I’m not short of cash, I’m sure you’ve realised the shop isn’t my…main source of income. It’s up to you. If you stay, I’ll knock it up to five.”
So I stayed.
He didn’t dream every night. Those quiet nights were the worst somehow, trying to guess what would come storming out of his imagination that I would have to beat to death. Like I said, I’m not a violent man, but there was something about the challenge that a part of me found exciting. And it was consequence free. These things weren’t real. About half an hour after their death they would simply vanish into thin air.
I can see by the look on your faces that you don’t believe me but in all my years in the ring I never had fights like these. I fought a man twice my size and I won. I fought boxers from the telly and took a beating but by God I caved their heads in. Mostly they were people I didn’t recognise, people I assume were from Ayres’ past, but that was none of my business. I beat them all. We only had one more film star after the samurai. I can say that I knocked the gun out of John Wayne’s hand before he could use it. And it was all staged like a fight, the way they would always come in that front door. Part of me wished that I’d had a crowd to see it. Not the killing, obviously, but the fight itself. I’ve never fought as well as I did fighting those things, whatever they were doing there. I had about two months of fighting at the top of my game.
Yesterday morning I was making a cup of tea in the back and I heard Ayres’ voice calling me. It didn’t sound urgent so I took my time. When I came through to the shop carrying my mug I saw Ayres chatting happily away to my wife and son.
I wasn’t prepared in the slightest. I hadn’t seen Liz since she’d visited me the first week I was inside when she told me that she wouldn’t be coming back. And my boy…I’d never met him. Mum had sent me pictures in the card she sent every year. She wouldn’t talk to me, Mum, but she’d still send me a card at Christmas. Anyway, I couldn’t speak. Ayres made his excuses and went upstairs, leaving me with these two people who felt like strangers. Liz smiled at me, the kind of smile that people make when they actually want to cry.
“How are you, Jimmy?” she asked. I told her I was fine. “I went round your Mum’s,” she said, “to see how you were doing. She said she hadn’t seen you but she knew you were working. She said you were staying out of trouble. Is that true?” What do you say to that? I told her it was, that I was keeping my nose clean and working hard. She wiped a tear from her eye and put a hand on the boy’s head. “This is Oscar. I wanted him to see his dad, and I wanted you to see him too.”
“Hello, Oscar.” I said. He hid behind his mum. I didn’t blame him but it hurt.
“Look,” she said. “I’m not promising anything but I wanted you to know that we’re still here, Jimmy. We haven’t gone anywhere and we’re not going to. But we need to know that you’re alright, that you can stick to this. If you can, I think we can maybe give it another go.”
I don’t remember much of what she said after that. She left about a minute later and I just remember feeling…happy. Like something good was going to happen. Something good was finally going to happen to me. I could have a normal life. I spent the rest of the day on cloud bloody nine. I’m sure things must have happened but I don’t recall. All I remember is going to sleep with a smile on my face for the first time in more than six years.
Obviously I wasn’t surprised when I heard a noise from downstairs. I grabbed the bat from its new home under my bed and went downstairs. Whatever it was, I hoped it was nothing too fierce. I was in too good a mood for a nasty scrap.
It wasn’t just one thing standing in the shop waiting for me. It was two. One was smaller than the other. They were holding hands. And as they stepped into the light I screamed. I screamed for the first time since I’d started fighting Ayres’ dreams. I screamed as my wife and son screamed back and attacked me.
When I’d finished I lay their bodies next to each other and tried to clean them up as best I could. I knew they would disappear soon enough but I couldn’t bear to see them looking like that. I’d tried to make it as quick as possible but a bat isn’t a clean weapon. It had taken a lot to make them stop. They were barely recognisable. This wasn’t just Ayres’ nightmare, it was mine.
Obviously you can’t control what you dream about. But no one should have to go through what I did. So, while I know you don’t believe me, this is the reason why I took the baseball bat, went up to Ayres’ bedroom and caved his head in. He won’t be dreaming any more. And I’m bloody praying that I won’t be either.
Hope you enjoyed this one. I'm not quite sure the voice is convincing but hopefully the story's fun. As I said, this title comes from @lafemmeflaneuse and I'm very grateful for it. Oh, I have a list of titles that lovely Twitter folks have provided me with. Here goes:
....and the wind blew and they stayed like it (@jpwtweet)
Yesterday's Shoes (@nolanzebra3)
She Wore Stripes (@Merazad)
The Mystery of the Pomegranates (@mant_a_tangi)
An Empty Space on the Bookshelf (@andylonsdale21)
The Lesser Evil (@SFXPennyD)
Slide Left (@Daanando)
The Night My Heart Exploded (@DavidHayes4)
The Unexpected Samurai (martang66)
There's some great stuff here, please keep them coming, either on Twitter or in the comments section!
Thanks again for reading.