Thursday, 2 April 2020
LIFE IN THE SEWERS
It was October. The plump summer sun had finally exhausted itself for the year and its thin, pale form now hid amongst the grey skies. Autumn had finally slipped into the sky and the new season had let loose grey rains to wash away the remnants of the previous one – all those gallons of sun screen, ice creams and spilt ciders flushed into the gutters beneath the feet of people dashing between dry spots under soggy newspapers or clutching cumbersome umbrellas.
My Friday had been stretched out by a long train journey home for the weekend. When I say ‘home’ I’m referring to the place in which I had been raised from childhood, not one of the many places I had lived at while roaming the land as an adult. To simply call it my parents’ house seems crass, as if I were somehow denying my roots. If my parents had downsized and moved to another property as some do when the nest has emptied, then I would have had no qualms about it. But as it was the walls still whispered memories and emotions of where I forged my identity, so to some fundamental part of me it was still home.
I sat with my mother and father in the living room. The décor had changed of course – maybe some alteration must be made to break a bittersweet link with the past. The gaudy primary colours and patterns had faded into more neutral tones. The layout remained the same though, except for the PC, desk and chair in the corner which had not yet been comfortably assimilated into the soft pastel furnishings of the living room.
Neither of them mentioned my work as a features journalist. If they hadn’t read my articles, then to admit as such would make it look as if they didn’t care about their only child’s work. However, if they had read them then they would be compelled to offer an opinion, which would expose our long-established differences on just about everything in life. Everything except old horror novels where we could talk about names like Hutson, Herbert and Barker in the same way I’ve listened to full-blooded discussions about past Prime Ministers.
Nowadays those conversations were reserved for when they were most needed; such as at the dinner table or when I drove them to my aunt’s funeral last spring. For the time being, small talk was sufficient while I was supplied with sweet tea and all the local news. All of it was tedious of course when one barely remembers the names of those who are mentioned. The news of a few “rather mysterious” and sudden deaths in the area pricked my interest but aside from some outrageous gossip about “teenage drug-gangs” slipping mind-altering chemicals into the water supply, the official word had been that they were all due to natural causes. I was glad. I hadn’t come back to stumble upon a story in my home town – I couldn’t stomach the thought of doorstepping in my old neighbourhood.
Then my mother mentioned that William Mapleton’s mother had bought the small bungalow almost directly across the road from where we were sat.
I first met Will Mapleton at primary school. I’d already known four other boys from pre-school and for reasons known only to the mind of a five-year-old we almost immediately accepted Will into our group. Never really an outgoing child, Will became famous for his football stickers. Every year you would find him in the playground with his thin fingers stretched around an enormous pile of swaps. He always had the sticker you needed, but it was much rarer you had one that he wanted and so began the negotiations. I always admired the power this afforded him.
I weathered all stages of schooling alongside Will Mapleton except University which divides old friends by reminding them that they differ where it matters; academically – whether by aptitude or by favoured subjects. I remember that the second term of my history degree had barely begun when I got a call to say that the body of Will’s father, who been missing since the Summer, had been discovered buried by the footbridge to the local woods. When we gathered for the funeral Will didn’t speak a word the whole day and barely even acknowledged the people around him. I attempted to offer meagre words of comfort but his face remained impassive whilst his dark brown eyes appeared haunted and unsure.
It was the time before social media which meant that, once I returned to University it was easy to put whatever I chose behind me and as the momentum of passing months became years I even stopped asking my parents if they knew whether the police had made in progress investigating the murder. I left Will behind so completely that even now, in my mind he was still the same age, still unable to move on.
That evening, having spent most of the day travelling, I welcomed some time to myself in the womb of the bathroom. For me there was nowhere else on Earth I could feel so relaxed in a bathroom that was not my own. Again, there had been changes: the brass-tipped bathroom suit had replaced the silver and white. Curiously, the shop-brand toiletries, frilly home-crafted cover for spare toilet rolls, white-fluffed luxurious towels and scented, decorative soaps now reminded me of my grandparents’ house. Had my parents taste in décor inadvertently followed their own parents or was I looking at it all with new eyes? It was a circular route that I wouldn’t be following having reached the age of forty-eight without a wife or children.
A healthy bowel movement, a hair-wash and a forever-long soak in hot bathwater uncurled my muscles and reset my equilibrium. Laying back in the warm clouded water, the air thick with sweet-smelling humidity. While I sweated impurities through my skin, memories kindled by my surroundings began drifting through my head inevitably leading me back to Will Mapleton. As I watched the dirty bathwater spiral down the plug-hole I had a vision of him in a tunnel – a sewer, even. Had someone once told me that he was working in a job that involved sewers? Cleaning them perhaps? I remembered the mental image it had inspired rather than the conversation, or who it was that had told me.
As I’m something of an opportunist, I’m used to spotting signs and dismissing coincidences. Will was becoming a growing concern for me and so – reminding myself that this was a private, not professional concern – I decided that I would visit his mother the next morning to find out what had become of him.
There was a break in the rainclouds the following Saturday morning. I stood outside the house so that I could smoke. My parents have a mixed relationship with my penchant for an occasional roll-up. Of course, they think it’s an inexcusable, unnecessary and self-destructive habit but they also take solace in the mistaken belief that I only took it up after I left home; as if the weaknesses in my character were kept at bay by their influence. It was a misapprehension I didn’t dare shatter.
The clouds filtered a pale light over Sue Mapleton’s semi-detached bungalow. I finished my cigarette and flicked it into the gutter as I crossed the road. When I stepped on to the driveway a ginger cat that was laying Sphinx-like on top of a black wheelie bin dropped to the ground and trotted round the back of the house as if to warn its mistress. Indeed, the windowless white UPVC door was opened barely seconds after I had knocked.
It would be obvious and therefore impolite to linger on how much older she looked from the last time I saw her, but Ms. Mapleton’s appearance had been treated harshly by the passing of time. She said she was pleased to see me but I noticed a sad resignation in the watery pale eyes behind her slightly tinted glasses. She was still filled with the same nervous energy – chattering and making excuses about unfinished housework – but whereas I remember in the past that she always used to perch on the edge of a seat, when she lowered herself into her armchair on this occasion her slender body took full advantage of the opportunity to rest.
The room was littered with trinkets and ornaments. A sweet diffuser-smell was failing to hide the stench of cat food. One wall held an enormous series of interlinking picture frames featuring Will through different stages of his life. Thin-faced with dark, un-style-able hair and a peppering of moles over his pale skin. There didn’t seem to be any pictures beyond the age I knew him, which perpetuated the feeling I had of an unfinished story. The cushion on the double-seater sofa was extremely firm. I noticed that I was sat opposite a large framed photo of her husband that was stood on the mantelpiece and I decided not to bring him into the conversation.
I wanted to keep control of the conversation so I took the lead. I employed an old trick of mixing information about myself in a leading statement. I told her that I felt ashamed for not keeping in touch with Will. Rather than trying to allay my proclaimed guilt and take her cue to begin talking about that particular year, Sue Mapleton merely nodded and said yes.
The word lingered between us for a moment. I was unsure whether she was testing me – my sincerity maybe – or whether she really did believe that her son wanted to keep in touch and that it was me who had rebuffed him. I tensed at the stab of irritation I felt but I resolved to ride out the pause for the sake of my mission.
I then realised that she was wrestling with her thoughts. She seemed to be physically searching for words: her eyes darted around the floor; her jaw moved behind her open mouth; she repeatedly smoothed down the sleeves of her blouse as if she would find clues in the folds and creases. Eventually she began by saying that Will had always valued my opinion and that, though she couldn’t say for sure, she felt that he always sought my approval.
I felt rather disarmed at this. My mind was flung back to one time when we were children on the way home from school and Will had begun throwing sticks into the trees to dislodge conkers. I was talking with someone whilst noticing how Will was finding larger and heavier sticks to throw skywards. Each projectile returned to earth quicker and they caught on branches as they fell which made it difficult to predict their trajectory. I envisaged the damage it would do to his skull and suggested to Will that for his own safety he should stop. It wasn’t a command and I certainly didn’t make any threats, but he complied. Without a word, he picked up his bag a stood next to me.
Mrs Mapleton’s ginger cat brushed by my legs and brought my attention back to the living room. It leapt onto its owners’ welcoming lap and settled itself down. The nonchalance was just an act though as it would turn sharply towards me whenever I made a movement.
The interviewee went quiet. Some people talk a lot in these situations because they’re trying to distract you from something they want to keep hidden; others don’t trust themselves to say anything in case they give something away. I looked again at the portrait of Will’s stone-faced father. Did he think that because his features were covered by a thick grey beard and large glasses, that he didn’t have to bother smiling for the camera?
I mentioned that I’d heard that Will was working in a job connected to sewers and this seemed to animate her a little. She mentioned, rather dismissively, that Will had left university soon after his father’s funeral suggesting that the institution was ill-suited to providing him with whatever support he needed at that time. After a while spent back at home (I could gain no clue as to whether it was months or years) that she referred to as time when he was “getting himself together”, Will answered a job advertisement.
“He was always interested in waste. You know, where it all goes,” she said. I very nearly laughed as it was strange to hear it said aloud but she was right. As teenagers, Will and I got jobs in a kitchen at a busy pizzeria. Occasionally we were asked to prepare salads but most of the time the duties involved washing up and cleaning. And yes, I suppose I had been aware of how Will enjoyed the job more than I did, but Will never said aloud what his interests were; you had to glean what you could from his actions.
The company, she went on to tell me, was called Flush Clearance and Will had applied for a job as a cctv engineer.
“They were unsure about taking him on. You know, because he didn’t have some water authority standard qualification or something. But they could tell he had an interest. And enthusiasm… Well he was always willing to work overtime and weekends and whatever, so who wouldn’t want someone like that on their books? Anyway, they put him on the basic rate and gave him all the training he needed. They even put him on a course to do with entering confined spaces would you believe? And he loved it. I hardly saw him. And his workmates liked him because they were always phoning him up asking him to work on their behalf. Even when they shouldn’t, you know, because he was working over his European directive for allotted hours. But they always came to him.”
I thought of the boy with his stickers sat patiently in the playground.
“A lot of hours working,” I said. Drawing her. Never judgemental.
“Oh yes. Too hard really. But I think you have to do that in the early days to establish yourself. Do the work and you'll go far, Roger used to say to him.” She then looked down at her cat with an unconvincing smile undoubtedly wounded by memories of her late husband. I wondered if she knew that Will’s father was a ferocious bully.
Then she began asking about me and my job and what I’d been doing with myself, obviously trying to divert the conversation away from her son. Something had bothered me about what she had said, but suddenly she was up on her feet apologising for cutting things short but she was extremely busy. I let her feel as if she had control – I didn’t want to appear desperate for information in case I needed to speak with her again.
As she escorted me to the door I asked if I could contact Will. She rather evasively told me that he was away but that she would let him know that I had asked after him. I might have pressed her on the fragility of her excuse but I was distracted by the sight of an open door in the hallway that revealed a small room that I almost dismissed as a regular toilet – except that in its place there was a commode.
That afternoon I went for a walk through town. When I was a child the high street on a Saturday was the only place to hang out save for a sparse and sorry-looking play-park. I loved going to the large newsagents. Faced with so many magazines on so many subjects I suppose it was like surfing the web in the days before household computers. Films, fishing, music, you could even sneak a look at the tame pornography before a shop assistant would shoo you away.
On Sundays we had a different playground. New housing estates were growing out of the surrounding fields back then and my friends and I would spend Sunday afternoons risking our lives to tread carefully through the empty building sites.
One week we took turns walking across a plank of wood between rafters of an upstairs floor. As he stepped on at one end, James Turner reached out to balance himself only to grab a large shard of broken glass. As his long howl of pain finally gave way to a regressive sob Andrew Phillips rode off to get James’ parents while Will and I stayed with him. It was the first time I had witnessed such a profusion of blood. I remember watching the dark, thick droplets on the dry sandy ground as it collected into a blob rather than soaking in. Will was quite agitated by the sight of it and he kept kicking and scuffing the blood into an open drain.
Generations swarmed to these new homes and now the town has outgrown its high street, unable to bare the weight of so many locals. The shops now seem so very small and the essential access road is now war-torn with potholes.
One survivor of the storm was the tiny overstuffed bookshop which I had found myself wandering into. The elderly gentleman serenely reading behind the counter could well have been an older version of the man who had kept a watchful eye over his stock when I was a child. The dry smell was evocative. Radio Three whispered through hidden speakers. The secret to the shop’s longevity appeared to be that many of the books appeared to be school set texts and everything was organised according to school year groups. A nimble-footed independent bookshop with a specially-tailored stocklist for the local Academy. All books were sold at full price, I noticed.
My mobile phone buzzed and rang. The screen lit up with the word ‘Parents’.
I stepped out of the shop to answer the call only to be met by an enormous vehicle pulling up to the curb. The passenger was already climbing out of the cab before the wheels had come to a halt and he began detaching a large downward pipe that he directed to a drain. It was now too noisy to answer my phone so I opted to request a message from the caller. As the machine on the vehicle noisily sucked or maybe blew the drain clear, my casual curiosity was shaken when I saw the company name was Flush Clearance – the same company that Will had been working for.
I tried to gain the workman's attention with an “excuse me” but it was a sharp “hey!” that did the trick. He looked at me with an unreadable expression.
“Do you know Will Mapleton?” I asked.
The man looked up at the driver who turned his attention to the road – his companion had either not heard or did not want to involve himself. He was on his own now. He turned his attention back to the pipe and pressed a button that ceased the sewage enema.
“I’m a school friend. Haven’t seen him in twenty-odd years. I heard he worked for your firm.” The man had reattached the pipe to the vehicle and clearly wanted to return to in the cab.
“Will Mapleton?” I asked again. He shrugged.
“You could ask someone,” he muttered. He climbed into the vehicle which pulled away before he had even closed the passenger door.
Was he suggesting that he didn’t know Will and that I should ask someone else from the firm? Maybe he wanted me to ask someone else if he knew Will because he couldn’t remember whether or not he knew him? It was a clumsy way of evading the question. Once again the mention of Will had provoked an intriguingly ambiguous response that suggested people did not want to be associated with him or his recent activities.
I looked about the street half expecting to see Will staring at me from across the road. Realising that I was still holding my phone, I checked it for a message. There was one: A message from my mother to tell me that a note had been posted through the letterbox suggesting a rendezvous this evening at a local pub with Will Mapleton.
The Buccaneer was beyond the outskirts of the town, next to woodland. My father insisted that he give me a lift in his car.
“Give me a ring when you want to be picked up,” he said. Were it not for the phone in my pocket and a healthy wallet I would have felt like a child again. Maybe he felt something similar.
The pub was so empty that nobody had even bothered to switch on the huge television. The dance music, which seemed so inappropriate for such a countrified pub, had probably been the choice of the young barman. The only other presence was a white-haired man sat at the bar offering comments about some football game, but he was cut off as I approached the bar and the barman asked me what he could get me. I ordered a pint of lager because I thought Will would be drinking the same.
As I turned to look around the pub I noticed someone sat at a table in the far corner. He stood. It was Will. His hair was cropped and his hardy clothes looked well-worn but his face was still bone thin and his complexion still pale. I paid for my drink and carried the misty cool pint glass over to his table. As I approached with a smile I began to offer my hand but he was already returning to his chair. There was a full, flat-looking pint of ale to one side of the table. In front of Will was a white mug of what seemed to be hot water as there was a wisp of steam curling from it.
“I had to order something but I'll not drink it,” he said gesturing to his beer.
“Is it not safe?” I said, attempting to set a light tone. It got no response.
There was a whiff of stale BO. Behind me the white-haired man was talking about money and goals and the music spoke of another time and place and the urgency of now. The lager tasted sharp and cold. Unusually for me I was unsure how to approach the conversation.
“Ever wondered how much menstrual blood gets flushed down the toilet?” was Will's opener.
I paused. “No.”
“Most simple blockages are caused by female sanitary products. They’ll always say they don’t flush them. Found a decomposing puppy down one once. Can you imagine the microorganisms thriving on that?”
“Are you still working for Flush Clearance?” I was rapidly losing the taste for my lager.
Will shook his head and took a sip of the hot water in his mug.
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
“How do you clean your drains?” he asked, ignoring my own question as if he hadn’t heard it. His dark pupils hadn’t properly settled on me since I sat down. “When they get a bit clogged. Happens to everyone. There’s no way you can keep your drains clear of FOG. We call it FOG: Fats, oil and grease. Remember when we were at Zafelli’s? All sorts used to go down the drain. Do you remember? We’d clean the ovens with chemicals, then pour them down the drain. Then we’d use chemicals to clean the floor. They went the same way. Then the FOG build-up would block the drains and we’d be told to put more stupidly strong chemical down the sink to clear it. Do you remember? It used to steam and you’d get that sharp pain in the back of your throat.”
Will’s attention was caught by something behind me. I turned and saw the barman walking into a door marked Gents. Will’s face tightened with anxiety. I missed my opportunity to speak.
“It used to steam. And we’d pour it down the sink like it was going to disappear into a black hole. Imagine how many cafes, restaurants, chip shops, whatever… Imagine them all doing that. At the time. Before. Since.”
His nervous energy was beginning to rise and all the time his eyes would occasionally flick to the toilet door with a brief flash of… what? Was it strong enough to be fear? A pulse in my chest quickened. Something was going to happen.
“Now think about those cleaning chemicals on a domestic level. All those years, all those chemicals. Kills ninety-nine-point-nine percent of bacteria? Well ninety-nine percent of bacteria are benign. And have you ever considered that there’s an entire eco-system built around a careful balance of bacteria.” A look of relief surfaced on his face and when I turned I saw the barman exiting the toilet.
“I read that in America water was tested from nine sites across the country. They found one-hundred and thirty different chemicals from pesticides, gasoline hydrocarbons, as well as household cleaning products. Then think about all the pills we’re popping nowadays. Almost half of all adults are taking prescription drugs. How much of that is going through your system? Tiny amounts, but over time… And the newer drugs. Older generations weren’t popping antidepressants like the current ones. Again, trace chemicals passing through our sewers but isn’t anyone thinking about the synergistic effects of all that stuff? Do you understand what I'm saying? You throw in all that human waste. All that blood. All the chemicals. You can’t wash all that stuff away and think that it won’t come back to haunt you.”
He held my gaze for a moment. You can’t wash all that stuff away and think that it won't come back to haunt you. I was beginning to understand what, in his own inimitable way, he was trying to say.
“Wait. I need to piss.” He got up, but rather than head for the toilet door, he left the pub. I waited a few moments then followed, taking my pint glass with me.
I found him in the pub garden urinating against a low fence. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered what he had against using the gents but I was focused on the moment. I placed my glass on the floor and approached quickly. My switchblade knife flicked out burning hot with purpose. I brought it in front of him and sliced it across his neck. He flailed weakly making ridiculous noises as I pulled his wallet from his trouser pocket and then bent to lift him by the legs, hauling him over the fence. He landed heavily and noisily into the thicket and rolled down the bank before there was silence once again.
I retrieved my glass and thirstily gulped back my drink so fast that it poured down the side of my cheeks and neck. The wet chill didn’t bother me. I wiped over the glass with my sleeve and then threw it deep into the dark woodland.
I phoned my father and told him that Will was acting strange and talking about getting into trouble with someone. I asked for a ride home. He moaned about having only just got back but he didn’t push it. In the car, I continued to talk about Will’s violent language and kept a hand in my pocket, my fingers wrapped around the switchblade knife I had owned since childhood – since I had waited with it in my hand, all those years ago, ready for Will’s father at the footbridge not far from where we were now driving.
Once at home I ran myself a bath and sat naked on the toilet to empty my bowels.
I was surprised to feel troubled. At first, I assumed it was due to the speed at which the opportunity to take another victim had come. Usually I allow time to savour the rise of bloodlust; enjoy wrestling my demon before succumbing to the release. On this occasion, it was simply about the moment. An instant orgasm without foreplay. It was refreshing to be so spontaneous. I should have felt some satisfaction at another conquest. Or at least appreciated the closing of a circle. Will Mapleton was obviously troubling my subconscious and once it became apparent that he knew I had murdered his father the path was set.
But there was something else.
With lack of planning comes an increase of risk. When his body is found I would obviously be a prime suspect. There were witnesses to my meeting with Will at the pub. But, for some reason I found the thought of it quite exhilarating. They say that serial killers are subconsciously desperate to be caught – to have their achievements exposed; to shock and impress the world.
No. Not me. But I was starting to see potential in a precarious situation. When the accusations came. Written about not just for the Sunday papers but as a mystery to sit amongst the bestsellers list. The torment of being accused of murdering my school friend. On the weekend that I had returned home.
I thought about my conversation with Will’s mother.
Had she also known about me killing Will’s father? Had I misread her anxiety over Will when it was actually due to fear? Surely if Will had given her any reason to be suspicious of me then she would have notified the police before now. But then, why had Will not done so? Maybe it was still only the seed of suspicion. What did they have on me?
I realised that I would need to see her again to be sure.
I leaned forward on the toilet seat to where I left my trousers on the floor and fished out Will’s wallet from a pocket. It was extremely light: thirty pounds in cash, a card on which several phone numbers had been written and a folded piece of old newspaper. I wondered about the lack of bank cards as I opened out the delicate newspaper clipping.
It was a story about Will. A thin wing-story sensationalised into a downpager for local news despite the lack of pictures. It described how he had been called to a household that was suffering from a blockage in its drainage system. How he fed a camera cable into the drain outside the house and he had seen something on the monitor.
Something without eyes that moved. And pulsed. And recoiled as the camera got closer.
He had a recording of it and posted it online but he was derided as a fake, hounded on social media by teenagers as Crazy Willy. He was fired by Flush Clearance for unauthorised and inappropriate use of company equipment after scouring the sewers of the town searching for whatever it was he had claimed to have seen. And then to the purpose of the article: that he had been issued with an antisocial behaviour court order after pestering the families of two locals who had both died in their bathrooms in “mysterious circumstances”.
Mysterious circumstances. The same phrase my parents had used.
Crazy Willy and his obsession with something in the sewers.
So he hadn’t known about me killing his father.
It was in the moment stunned silence that I noticed a slopping sound from beneath me. I pictured water displacement in the pipes. What I didn’t know, what nobody could have known save for one person who now lay dead in a field with his throat cut, is that it was the sound of a creature passing through the U-bend of the toilet.
You can’t wash stuff away and think that it won't come back to haunt you, he had said.
I felt something hot and heavy making a sticky path over my buttocks. I started to rise from the toilet seat but dropped back down with a deep scream as it poked itself inside me, stretching my anus. I continued to scream as I felt it slowly burn and tear its way up into my bowels until its heavy mass filled my stomach. I lurched forward, half standing and still I screamed, while in the distance my parents began banging at the locked bathroom door and yelling frantically. I felt it rise up into my chest forcing out my rib cage with splits and cracks as my scream was cut out from my lungs with a stinging squeeze. With no way of breathing in, I lurched further forwards and swung myself sideways now face-to-face with my reflection, a face all sheen-pink and bulbous eyes and mouth and I watched my neck bulge to twice its size and as my mouth remained open I saw the second tongue emerge from the back of my throat and the shiny veiny mass slide outward. I felt the release in my throat as the fat pillow of glistening membrane filled my mouth, my jaw cracked and it slipped through my teeth.
As it dropped from my mouth, I fell to the floor. Somewhere, fists beat weakly at the door like a dying heartbeat. Unable to suck air, my vision darkened as I watched slack-jawed as a slug-like mass crept up the side of the toilet, plump and crimson.
My shaking fists were still clutching Will Mapleton’s empty wallet and the newspaper clipping as my hollow insides finally gave way.