|.....All I wanted was a quiet drink. It had been a long, hard, exasperating day, and I was tired and disenchanted with the world and its inhabitants. The public house was one of those new ones, got-up to look like an old one, with dim lighting and wooden-screened alcoves forming cosy, segregated nooks. It being early evening, there were only a couple of other lone drinkers in the place, silent, hunched figures, propping up the bar. As I was in no need of company, this was fine by me. I obtained half a pint of beer from the surly barkeeper and carried it to the furthest corner of the establishment.|
.....For the first time that day I felt something approaching contentment as I settled at a mock-aged table in a small, panelled booth and took a drink of the surprisingly acceptable beer. There, by the light of the artificial gas lamp, if I ignored the smell of new wood and carpets I was almost transported to a bygone, quieter age. I was able for a short while to forget the long hours spent dealing with irascible and ungrateful members of the public, and lose myself in a more peaceful, less commercial era.
.....It was fated that this rare contentment could not last, however. For I was snatched from my fantasy of a stress-free world back into this one by the sudden intrusion of a rough, deep voice: "Hello there, Archie, I haven't seen you for ages. How you doing?"
.....Startled, I looked up to find myself confronted by the largest man I have ever encountered. He was large both in height and width; he completely blocked the entrance of the booth and towered over me like a huge building. "You're a sight for sore eyes an' no mistake, Archie, me old mucker," he boomed, his voice seeming to emerge from a dark, subterranean depth. With that, he reached a long way down and patted me on the shoulder with a hand like a spade as if I were a toy dog. Without further ado and completely uninvited by me he somehow contrived to install his bulk into the seat opposite me, this necessitating him pushing the table towards me, thus trapping me in my own seat.
.....I must state at this juncture that my name is Arthur, not Archie, nor have I ever regarded myself as anyone's 'mucker', least of all of someone of my unwanted companion's character. I am a honest, income tax inspector of thirty years standing, law-abiding and God-fearing; I instinctively doubted that the mountain in front of me had any of these qualities and was most probably a stranger to the payment of taxes. I had my mouth open to say as much, but something in the man's small, hard, glittering eyes made me reluctant to argue with him. There was something a little fiendish there, something not quite sane.
.....No, if this huge, frightening man professed I was his long-lost friend, then his long-lost friend I was. Instead I mumbled, "Ah, hello there, er..."
.....As if this were a signal for closer intimacy, he brought his massive, rugged, unshaven face close to mine and washed me with his evil-smelling breath, "It's really good that I've bumped into you like this, Archie, me old mate, I've got something here that's right up your street." So saying, the giant mercifully withdrew his face, leaned back, and from somewhere about his person produced a supermarket carrier bag containing something round and lumpy. With a furtive look around the nearly-empty public house, he put the bag on the table and thrust it towards me, "Here, put it away; we don't want everybody knowing our business, do we Archie?"
.....What could I do? I was loath to antagonise this horrible mountain of a man, whose manic little eyes were fixed on me so unnervingly, by refusing his gift. In a confused daze, I reluctantly reached to my side, opened my briefcase and put the mysterious package inside. Fortunately, the case is a large one, as I often take home copious amounts of work to while away the long evenings; even so, it was a tight squeeze, the package being about the size of a large cabbage, though somewhat more solid.
.....A look of relief crossed the giant's gnarled face as the carrier bag and its contents passed from his possession to mine. It was as if a burden had been lifted from him. This strange transaction had taken moments to complete, so rapidly that I had no time to consider the implications. It was only after I had fastened my case that it occurred to me that I had most probably just become entangled in something highly questionable. I opened my mouth to protest, at the same time reaching again to my briefcase to retrieve the package and return it to this undoubtedly criminal thug.
.....The mountain, apparently misinterpreting my actions, hurriedly said, "Oh there's no need for that, Archie. I don't need paying. If I couldn't do an old pal a favour, where would I be? No, you have that on me." Forestalling any further remonstrance I might have made he then started to rise, in the process pushing the table even further in my direction. "Do you know?" he said, all in a rush, "I've just remembered there's a bit of important business I've got to see to. Can't stop. It's been good seeing you after all this time. Maybe I'll bump into you again one day."
.....Then, remarkably quickly for someone of his proportion, he crossed to the opening of the booth, cast a guilty glance around the public house, and was gone. I, for my part, was left with my mouth opening and closing like that of a beached fish, still trying to express my reluctance to accept his gift, the slam of the exit door ringing in my ears.
.....What a dilemma! There I was, my briefcase bulging with what surely must be the proceeds of some illegal activity. What was in the package? Money? Jewellery? My mind raced: why had the monstrous man deposited it on me? Were the authorities pursuing him and he had used me to dispose of the evidence? He had certainly been in a hurry. Was I about to feel the weight of another hand on my shoulder?
.....In almost the same manner as the mountain, I looked stealthily around the public house. To my relief all was as it had been when I entered: the same solitary figures were slumped over the bar and the bartender was morosely wiping its surface. No blue uniforms were charging in, handcuffs at the ready. I breathed a little easier for a moment. Then another thought struck me.
.....Oh my Lord, did my briefcase contain a bomb? Had I been in the company of a terrorist intent on blowing the public house from the face of the earth? Making sure I was unobserved, I leaned to the side and apprehensively put my ear to the case. It was blessedly silent; no ticking emanated from inside. Feeling vaguely ridiculous, I straightened up. Why would anyone want to blow up an inoffensive, near-empty public house? Moreover, why go to the trouble of planting it on an innocent tax inspector, when the mountain could more easily have secreted it anywhere in the building?
.....No, the carrier bag did not contain a bomb. The question was: what were its contents and, more importantly, how was I going to rid myself of it? For I certainly wanted nothing more to do with it.
.....The best solution was to leave the package there on the seat and exit the public house as quickly as possible. Just as I began to unfasten my briefcase to perform this act, the bartender chose that very moment to come and clean my table. I must have appeared highly suspicious, for he gave me a look so penetrating that I was sure he knew what I was about to do. In a sudden guilty panic, I stood up hurriedly, almost upturning the table and at the same time knocking over my unfinished beer. I mumbled an apology and scurried from the public house as fast as my legs would carry me, clutching the bulging briefcase in front of me.
.....Out in the street I was at a loss what to do. The street was busy, so I could not just casually drop the package on the pavement and walk away; someone would surely pursue me and return it. Besides, I am not the kind of person who litters public thoroughfares. My mind in a quandary, I joined the queue at a bus stop, where I waited uncomfortably for a bus to take me home, paranoiacally certain that everyone there knew the secret of my briefcase. At last, the bus finally arrived and I climbed aboard and made myself as inconspicuous as possible at its rear. The bus being full of homeward-bound passengers, I was forced to abandon the idea of leaving the package behind me on the seat, and so it was that I disembarked outside my apartment, my briefcase still guiltily heavy.
.....Once inside my apartment, the door locked securely behind me, I deposited the case on a table and for a long time sat staring at it, reluctant to open it. Finally summoning the courage, I removed the carrier bag and looked inside. Wrapped in newspaper was a spherical object, quite heavy and hard. I removed it from the bag and began to unwrap it. There were several layers of paper from a common tabloid I would not normally associate myself with; as I removed each one I noticed they were slightly moist.
.....With the removal of each sheet of newsprint a mounting suspicion and fear overcame me - surely they could not contain what I thought. It could not be. Nervously I peeled away more sheets, and as I did so, it became increasingly terrifyingly apparent what they concealed. The shape, the consistency, the feel of it told me what my brain refused to believe. An unwholesome, fascinated curiosity drove me to strip off the last few sheets of paper until the object was finally revealed in all its gruesomeness.
.....There, on my carefully polished coffee table, amid the lurid pages of gutter journalism lay a recently severed human head.
.....To say I was shocked would be an understatement; I was horrified, appalled, sickened and revolted. What had the horrible mountain of a man meant by giving me such a thing? What was he: a lunatic, a crazed murderer, a mad axeman? Moreover, what was I going to do with it, now that I had it? I could not take it to the police and tell them a man in a public house had given it to me; they would clap me in irons and throw away the key. What could I do?
.....It seems strange to relate now how as I sat there, my mind in a turmoil, a gradual calm began to descend on me. The head was that of a beautiful young woman, the eyes were open and looked back at me; such incredibly blue eyes, tranquil and clear like placid pools of cool water. They held me, hypnotised me, drew me towards them. The face they were set in was angelic: delicate, china-white skin, a small, upturned nose, slightly pouting pink lips and an elf-like chin. It ... she was so perfect. As I stared into those exquisite eyes my revulsion disappeared and was replaced by a different emotion, one I had never experienced before.
.....I reached out and touched the face; the flesh was cool, like alabaster, but soft and pliant. I ran my fingers over the subtle contours of the nose, across the smooth forehead, stroked the slightly arched, blonde eyebrows, caressed the soft, firm lips. To my irritation, I saw that the rough paper in which she had been wrapped had sullied her skin with newsprint, marring her clean perfection. Her hair too, short, fine and blonde, was disarrayed and soiled. How could I let her remain so despoiled?
.....Gently, almost reverentially, I lifted the head from the table and carried it to the bathroom. There, I ran a little warm water into the sink and with extreme care proceeded to wash the face, being especially careful to avoid those beautiful soft eyes. As I did so I noticed how expertly the head had been severed. It had been cut off neatly and cleanly at the base of the neck so as not to cause any disagreeable raggedness or other such superfluous damage. In addition, any fluids seemed to have been drained away, hence if one ignored the rawness of the neck end, my task was surprisingly pleasant. Particularly enjoyable was the washing of the hair; it was so soft and fine like silk in my fingers. Although I am selective in my choice of cleaning products, I made a mental note to purchase more suitably feminine soaps and shampoos as soon as possible, as it seemed somehow inappropriate to use my own.
.....Returning to the lounge, I first cleared away the crumpled, dirty newspaper from the table, then placed a soft, velvet cushion in its centre. Upon the cushion, I then rested the head, ensuring it was snug and comfortable and unlikely to accidentally roll off. I then began probably one of the most satisfying tasks I have ever performed: that of brushing the golden, silken hair, now shining healthily from my efforts in the bathroom. I think it was then that I realised I had been talking softly to the head for some time. I am not sure what I spoke of; probably I simply made mumbled endearments; for by now I had become exceedingly attached to the object on the cushion.
.....It would also be about this time that I christened the head. I could no longer continue to consider it as merely a thing; not when my feelings towards it were blossoming as they were. The name I chose was Priscilla, for some time a favourite of mine. To me it implies purity and virginity, qualities so apparent in the pale beauty resting in the centre of my coffee table.
.....I have always found it difficult to communicate with women; to me they are intimidating creatures, scornful and haughty when one attempts to approach them, which is why I have always refrained from associating with them. Priscilla was different. She did not laugh at me or mock me; she did not scorn or reject me. She listened to me. I could speak to her without fear of rebuff.
.....Long into that evening, I sat and chatted to Priscilla. She rested on her cushion and gazed intently at me from her clear, blue eyes, absorbing every word from my lips. I spoke of my lonely life, my frustrations, the absence of love, the misery of my existence. I told her of my empty youth and my emptier middle years, of my resignation to being always alone. I poured out my heart to Priscilla, and I know that she listened to me and sympathised and cared. Never before in my life had I spoken so long and so meaningfully with anyone. Never before in my life had anyone listened so keenly to me.
.....At last, I talked myself out. It was the early hours of the morning and I needed to sleep. I carefully picked up Priscilla and her cushion and carefully carried her to my bedroom. There, I cleared a place for her on the bedside table and prepared myself for the night. Before I turned out the light I considered giving her lips a goodnight kiss but thought perhaps that would be too presumptuous on our first day together, so instead I merely whispered a fond "sleep tight" to her. I then slept soundly and peacefully with Priscilla close by my side.
.....The next morning, I was sorely tempted to take the day off and spend it with Priscilla. However, as I have never missed a day at the office it may have caused undue concern and inconvenience if I had, so reluctantly I was forced to leave her on her own. The day was long and tiresome, but not without its compensations. For, I found I had acquired an inner happiness and a new self-confidence. I was able to handle everyone I met with tolerance and compassion, though I was a little disconcerted by the knowing looks of my colleagues at the spring in my step and the smile on my face. Often I had to refrain from the desire to sing and whistle to myself, as I have never been known for overt displays of cheerfulness.
.....At last, the day ended and I was able to rush back home and find Priscilla waiting uncomplainingly for me. After preparing and consuming a light meal, I settled down to another evening of conversation with my attentive and delightful companion. What joy it was to tell her of my day, to share with her the trials and tribulations of life in the income tax service. How eagerly she listened to my every word without hint of boredom.
.....Thus, the pattern of the next few days was set. I would go out to work each day secure in the knowledge that someone waited for my return. My life was complete at last after all the years of loneliness.
.....It was into the next week when things began to change. Sadly, Priscilla's beauty started to fade. When I picked her up, I noticed her flesh was getting soft and squashy, unpleasant liquids started to emanate from her and dampened her cushion, and a noxious odour arose from her. Worst of all, the brightness began to disappear from her lovely eyes; they gradually clouded over and lost their sparkling intensity. When I spoke to her, it was as if she no longer listened to me, as if she were going away from me.
.....I was distraught. How could she do this to me? As time past matters got worse, I am loath to say it but Priscilla became ugly, unattractive to look at. When one day I attempted to stroke her previously tender cheek and her skin came away in my fingers I knew the culmination had come. Priscilla had left me. No more would she wait patiently for me, no more would she benignly and amiably hear my words of love and devotion. She had spurned me.
.....There was nothing else for it. I could not have her mocking, unsightly and unseeing face in my apartment. I found an empty cardboard box and placed her in it. For one last time I stroked her silken though now moist hair and closed the lid. Making sure I was unobserved, I deposited the box in the dustbin and concealed it with rubbish. As the bin would be emptied that day, there would be little chance of discovery.
.....Seated once more in my empty apartment, a new and deeper loneliness descended upon me. To have had so much for it to be taken away from me in such a way was unbearable. I could not return to those long and desolate days of old. I had discovered the joys of companionship and craved their resumption. I had to have them back.
.....So it is that I sit here in that same public house, waiting, waiting. Is that the door? Yes! And yes, there he is: the man-mountain in the same disreputable clothes. Ah, and yes, in his hand is a carrier bag - and he is coming towards me with that shifty, secretive look on his face.
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