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One of the challenge points on the Better World Books 2017 Reading […]
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Wesley glanced behind him. Two people followed, but at a sensible distance. The first was familiar; an old man whose name he knew to be Murdoch. Murdoch, Wesley remembered, had been robust, once. He'd been grizzled. "Huge. Frosty. A magnificent, clambering, prickly pear of a man. He'd been firm and strong and resolute. "Planted; a man-tree, if ever there was one.
Recently, however, Murdoch's body had begun to curve, to arc (they all called him Doc, although he hadn't even seen the inside of a hospital until his sixty-third year -- he was a home birth, people invariably were, back then -- when necessity dictated that a small reddish hillock, a mole, on his right shoulder blade, should be surgically removed. He was a scaffolder, by trade).
But the curving was nothing medical. It went deeper. And along with this -- initially -- almost imperceptible transmutation (Wesley noticed details. It paid him to notice), Doc's colours had begun to alter: his bodily palette had changed from its habitual clean, crisp white, to a painfully tender pink, to a pale, dry, crusty yellow. Up close he smelt all sweet and sickly, like a wilting honeysuckle tendril.
Now, when Murdoch walked, it was as though he carried something huge and weighty within him, something painful, thudding, wearysome. His "heart. It was too full and heavy. Stuffed but tremulous, like a chicken's liver.
"Mmmm. Wesley felt hungry. I could devour him, he thought, smirking. But he knew -- must I know everything? He wondered briefly, the smirk dissipating -- that the thing Murdoch carried so heavily in his heart was grief. Yes, grief. And possibly, just possibly, a tiny, shrew-footed, virtually inaudible,pitter-patter of rage.
Unwieldy burdens. Wesley understood. He'd carried them him-self, and badly. But Murdoch was strong, and he supported them fearlessly, he slung them -- like an ancient holdall with rotted handles -- firmly and evenly between his two old arms.
Doc was accompanied by a little dog. A sandy-coloured terrier. A plucky cur, a legendary ratter. The dog was called Dennis. Wesley knew Dennis well; the stout push of his legs, the familiar bump of his vertebrae, the inquisitive angle of his ears, his horribly intrusive nose, his fur wiry as poor quality pot scourers.
He remembered, once, staring briefly into Dennis's eyes and seeing a wild loop of fleas tightening in a crazy insect lassoo around the bridge of his snout. "Ah. He was a good dog.
And the other person? The second follower? A woman. Wesley peered. She rang no bells. She wasn't familiar. She did not compute. Young. She seemed young and gangly, fine but big-boned with a delicate, tufty, parsnip-shaped head. Not unattractive, either. She was plain but wholesome, like a small, newly dug, recently scrubbed tuber. She was dressed like a boy.
Wesley turned, smiling grimly to himself. They were a bane. Yes. A bane. But only so long as they followed him (and this had to be some kind of compensation), only so long as they stalked, surveyed, trailed, pursued, could he truly depend upon his own safety. They were his witnesses. "Unwitting? Certainly. "Witless? Invariably.
But they were his witnesses. And Wesley knew (better, perhaps, than anybody) that he was a man who desperately needed watching.
"Early. It was too damn early. Wesley paused for a moment in front of a bakery and glanced through thewindow. They'd just opened. He drew close to the glass and touched it. He left a perfect thumbprint. I'm leaving traces, he thought.
He stared down into a tray of speciality doughnuts. They were not the round kind, or the ring. They were not creamy zeppelins, apple-filled or cinnamon-sugar-rolled. No. They were shaped like people. Like gingerbread men.
In Canvey -- because that was where he found himself on this teeth-achingly cold, brutally bracing January morning -- their wild and resolutely wool-infested island history was intertwined with the stamp of spicy ginger, with sweetness, with men (as late as the eighteenth century this precarious domain's unhealthy air -- the interminable "dampness -- brought the fever like an unwelcome wedding gift to raw hordes of eager new brides.
"Malaria. Concealed in the perilous but stealthy fog which constantly tiptoed around this fractured isle like a ravenously phantas-magorical winter mink, slipping, unobserved, between plump and tender post-nuptial lips, slinking, unapprehended, through the spirited flair of passionate nostrils.
Making itself at home. Rearranging the furniture. Infiltrating. Infecting. Conquering. Killing. In those days one stout and ruddy shepherd could take ten wives and think nothing of it. Some, it was rumoured, took as many as thirty-five).
Wesley knew his stuff. Or enough stuff, at least -- he told himself tiredly -- to be getting on with.
The doughnuts he took to be a local peculiarity. He gazed at them. He was hungry. Each doughnut had an ugly red scar where its jam had been pumped in the sweetest transfusion. Generally, the wound was located under the right armpit. Sometimes, but rarely, in the chest.
He glanced up. Instinct. A shop assistant watched him. She was tying on her apron but staring at his hand, her dark eyes, her clean mouth, battling instinctively against a wide tide of revulsion. On his right hand Wesley had only a thumb, and a mass of shiny scar tissue which glimmered a bright bluey-violet in the cold.
He removed his hand and tucked it into his pocket. But the assistant didn't stop her staring. 'I know you, ' she said, the light of recognition gradually dawning. He could see her lips moving. 'I "know you.'
Wesley stared at her, blankly, then turned and walked on.
The old man reached the bakery seconds later. Murdoch stopped in Wesley's tracks and peered through the window. He put his thumb where Wesley's thumb had been. His old eyes fed upon the trays of sweet iced fingers, sticky currant buns, cold bread pudding.
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