Lost Souls

Retford's Haven

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Retford’s Haven

by Darren McCormick

Luther and I sat warming our scabby brown hands by the fire we had built from bits of old furniture, strips of carpet and whatever else we could find that would burn. My teeth rattled like pills in a bottle, I could hear them but couldn’t feel a thing; my head may as well have been encased in ice. I could have rolled around in those flames and still wouldn’t thaw myself out.

"How’s the snowballs, mucker?" said Luther.

I was too busy coughing something up—lung tissue maybe—to answer. We had spent most of the day panhandling in the nearby precinct. Luther reckoned my appearance would be good for business; I could only think of finding an alley to lie down and die in. Still, we made enough dough to buy us a few litres of cheap vodka and a bag of spuds. I wiped my mouth; Luther took his overcoat off and wrapped it around me.

At the far side of the common, a bloke was locking up one of the Portakabins that had ominously sprouted up in recent weeks. We looked upon them as our unofficial eviction notice. I recognised him by his walk, all edge, flicking each shoulder forward with each step. A ridiculously gleaming yellow hard-hat was perched on his head. He wasn’t much more than a kid; suited and booted, running the project apparently—full of himself. He leaned against his flashy car and looked over at us, mouth open and chin in the air, like a schoolteacher who’s just spied a couple of kids sneaking a smoke between lessons. Luther wiped his nose along his sleeve then elbowed me in the ribs. The Suit was coming over.

"You couple of cretins still here, I see," he said when close enough to speak without raising his voice. "Just thought I’d come and tell you to make the most of your home comforts. Work begins on the new retail park on Monday." He stood with his hands on his hips, quite proud of himself, nodding as he looked around; you’d have thought he was going to build the whole damn thing with his own hands. "We’re bringing the JCBs in. Going to level this whole area. You’ll have to find somewhere else to eke out your miserable scum existence."

"So what?" said Luther. "Plenty other places to go. We’ll kip in that old graveyard if we have to." He looked at me and winked, his smile bringing an echo of youth to his ruddy, beaten-up face.

The Suit laughed and shook his head. "I wouldn’t have thought so. That’s for the bulldozers too. And about time, the place is an eyesore."

"You can’t go digging up a cemetery," I said. "That’s sick. It’s sacrilege."

"It’s progress. Who cares anyway? The last person to be put in there probably died of bubonic plague."

Luther spat on the fire; his saliva sizzled on a table-leg. He unscrewed th bottle-cap, wiped the neck under his arm, took a long swig then passed it to me. It was a struggle to get the stuff down, I couldn’t even taste it, but I persevered under Luther’s encouraging gaze.

"Don’t count on getting rid of us so easy, young un," he said. "We’ve been here a long time. And we’ve no intentions of movin’. Alright?"

The Suit pushed his hands deep into his pockets like he was searching for his knees. He rolled his shoulders and stretched up on his toes.

"If it’s a confrontation you have in mind," he laughed, "I’m inclined to think you’ll be embarrassingly overwhelmed. Why don’t you scuttle off and get yourselves a nice little job that becomes you; maybe cleaning the toilets in the park, or washing dishes in a scruffy Chinese take-away?"

I could see the veins popping in Luther’s neck and temples. The Suit was playing with him, riling him up for a reaction and doing a good job of it.

"I mean, look at yourselves! Where do you figure in the pecking order? Somewhere between the rats and worms you sleep with."

Luther jumped to his feet and squared up, his fists clenched, snarling through his teeth like a mutt being prodded with a stick.

"You think it’s easy living the life we’ve chosen? My mate here nearly froze to death under those trees last night. I had to pour whiskey down his gullet just to bring him round."

The Suit shrugged. "Does this look like the face of concern?"

I pulled on Luther’s trouser leg. "Easy mate, leave it. Sit down; don’t let him get to you." I was feeling sick enough already, all I wanted was for us to be left in peace.

"Well, I’d like to smash his nose through the back of his head. I want his blood splattered all over that poncey little suit of his."

"What a crazy old man you are. A festering drop-out living in ding-dong land," said The Suit grinning and shaking his head. He side kicked some soil onto the fire then turned and walked away, laughing as he jangled his car keys on the end of his forefinger.
Luther sat down. "Yeah, run off home to your mother, little boy. It’ll be dark soon and you’re tea’ll be getting cold." He snatched the bottle with a grunt. We watched The Suit get into his car; he seemed to take an eternity before switching on the engine. Then off he drove, still wearing the hard-hat, flashing his lights and honking twice as he pulled onto the main road.

We sat silent for a while, just passing the bottle back and forth, entranced by the dancing flames that became more beautiful as night slowly descended. Luther used an old knitting-needle he’d found to skewer some potatoes, turning them now and then as they roasted in the embers. I didn’t really want to think about where we’d go once the construction crew turfed us out; shop doorways were a no-no since the council’s clean-up campaign.

"Could I have the pleasure of your company, gentlemen?" A man stepped from the shadows, also dressed in a suit, though he was stooped and much older than our previous guest.

"Another bleeding bureaucrat," growled Luther reaching for a rock.

"It’s alright." I placed my frost-bitten hand on my friend’s shoulder. "Looks like he’s in the same boat as us."

By the light of the fire I could see the holes in his knees and elbows, the mud on his clothes and shoes. There was an honest agony in his face.

"Sit down," I said. "Have a drink."

"Thank you. My name is Retford." He joined us by the fire, his knees creaking as he crossed his legs underneath himself. "I apologise, I hadn’t meant to intrude but I overheard your conversation with that fellow just then."

Luther spat on the fire again and handed Retford the bottle.

"I’m Luther. The block of ice over there is Kent. Get some of that down your neck, you could do with some colour in your cheeks." Retford took a long drink. "I suppose you heard that smarmy bastard? Putting us with the rats and the worms?"

"Yes, I heard. But on occasion, the rats and the worms can be scintillating company, don’t you find?"

A large beetle crawled from under Retford’s sleeve and onto a boil on the back of his hand. It worked its feelers at the dried up pus. With a deft flick of the wrist he sent it tumbling to the ground; it scurried off onto the darkness as if terrified of the orange glow of the fire.

Luther raised his eyebrow at me, the corner of his mouth twitching. I smiled; we had quite a character in our midst.

"Retford," said Luther, "I don’t think I’ve seen you round about. I mean, where’s your kip?"

The old man laughed. "I live around here, just like yourselves, but I usually tend to keep a very low profile."

"So what’s your story, then? Wife leave you for someone better looking? What got you down in the dirt? Gambling? The booze?"

Retford looked away reflectively. "I’ve been down in the dirt for so long now that I don’t care to recall my time before. There was a woman, I am aware of that, somewhere in the distant past. The mere mention of her name would bring me great anguish, so in time I’ve learned to block it from my mind. But certainly, I’ve found peace in this place."

"Yeah, women ruined us too. But we ain’t never been happier than these last few years." Luther pointed to the Portakabins. "And I’ll die before I let those bastards tear my life apart, if you know what I mean."

"We are as angry as you about their plans. The news disturbed us greatly. So I came to tell you that you are not alone, and to urge you to join us."

"There’s more of you? Jesus, that’s great!" yelled Luther. He grabbed Retford’s hand with both of his and shook it so hard I was sure I could hear the old man’s bones splinter. "Of course we’ll team up with you, well, as soon as my mate warms up a bit. Those bastards can go to Hell!"

Retford smiled then struggled to his feet. "I hope I’ve given you fine gentlemen some hope tonight, raised your spirits, perhaps. Thank you for the drink."

"Won’t you have a roast tater? You should get something warm inside you on a night like this."

"That’s generous of you but I’m not at all hungry."

Luther laughed. "You and Kent will get on great. He hasn’t eaten a thing all day."

"There will always be days like that, I’m sure you’ll have them too," said Retford. "But, really, I must leave."

Luther and I got up and hugged our new comrade. "Thanks mate, we’ll sleep well tonight. Next time bring your friends, we’ll give them all a drink. There’s always room around our fire."

"You’re very kind. I will indeed return, and I assure you, I will not be alone. Perhaps, even, very soon. We should make our move before the developers begin their work. And, of course," Retford raised a crooked forefinger, "a lack of fear is obligatory."

"I like the sound of that." Luther punched the air. "We’ll see you, then. We’ll have to work extra hard tomorrow for drink money; I feel a party coming on!"

Retford lowered his head and walked off towards the graveyard. He climbed over the little stone wall and crawled up the grassy bank beyond. At the top, he raised his hand in a farewell gesture, nodded then wandered through the old gravestones.

"So he lives in that old cemetery, eh?" I said, giving Luther a sideways look.

"Well, more fool him. Decent enough bloke, though. Bit weird maybe. Strange manner of talking, wouldn’t you say?"

"Hmm, but what the hell. Let’s drink to him."

I raised the vodka bottle to the stars, still feeling ready for my grave, but this Retford had cheered me up a little. I had no idea if he really did have all these friends, or what he had planned, if anything; he was probably just a silly old fool with mad ideas in his head. Years of loneliness, with only the bottle as comfort could do strange things to a bloke’s brain. But he had been pleasant company – if nothing else.

It was still dark when I was roused by someone shaking me by the shoulder and breathing my name into my ear. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. The fire had almost gone out but the moon was high enough that I could make out the face looking down at me.

"Retford?" I said. "You’ve come back!"

"Kent, we must move quickly. My friends are waiting for you and Luther. There is no time to hesitate, you both must come quickly if you are to join us."

Luther rolled over and squinted his eyes. "What’s going on? Retford?"

The old man helped me to his feet. "Come on, Luther," I said, "we have to go, mate."

At the top of the grassy bank where Retford had earlier disappeared into the night, there were at least a dozen dark figures lined up, waiting for us.

"Those are some of my friends. They’re willing to give you this chance, you must take it now before it is too late."

Luther picked up the vodka bottle and managed to squeeze a drain out of it, then shrugged at me. "Suppose this is it then," he said.

We followed Retford over the wall and climbed towards the edge of the cemetery.

"What’s the plan then, mate?" said Luther, trying to focus his eyes on the figures in front of him. I doubled up and coughed up phlegm.

An stooped old man, similarly dressed to Retford, spoke up. "There is only one course of action available. That is if you want to avoid the iron machines."

"Let me introduce my old friend Hector," said Retford. "I suppose you could call him our leader."

"Whoa now," said Luther gathering his senses, "hold on a second here. What’s all this about avoiding the bulldozers. You said we were going to fight those bastards off, drive them away from our home."

"I said nothing of the sort. Those were your words. I offered you the chance to unite with us, saying we would take action, and without fear. If you’re afraid, then maybe you shouldn’t come with us."

"Well, I tell you what," boomed Luther, "I’m not running away from anyone. No way!"

"But neither are we. Not exactly. What do you say, Kent?"

I was feeling worse than ever, my insides felt like they had withered away to nothing. "I don’t care what we do. I think my blood has turned to ice inside my veins." I coughed again, bringing up more fluid from my lungs, then my legs gave way under me.

I managed to raise my head to see Luther surrounded by these friends of Retford, they seemed to multiply by the minute, and they all had such sad, desperate sunken faces, covered in boils and warts. Most of them looked older and much less healthier than him, as unlikely as that was. Suddenly the whole cemetery was illuminated before my eyes like a floodlit stadium. And only then was it apparent where everyone had come from. There was a deep, yawning hole before each of the ancient gravestones in the cemetery, and soil still clung to some of their bodies. They beckoned Luther, "Take this chance."

Retford put his arm around Luther’s shoulder. "You will descend deep into the earth with us, far below the surface where no mechanical monster can reach you. You will be safe from harm. Come."

"No," Luther trembled. "No, I won’t come with you, I’m going back to fight for what’s mine."

"Do not be foolish. You made a pledge to join us. This is for your own welfare."

Retford took him by the wrist, and dragged him screaming towards one of the graves. He plunged into the dark hole dragging Luther behind him. I watched as Retford fell out of sight, the soil rolling along the ground and refilling the grave, and the last I saw of my friend was his old boot protruding from the surface before slipping beneath the earth.

The others returned to their graves, hurling themselves headlong into the ground, the soil falling over them. One paused and looked back.

"And so, what of you? Will you join us and be free or be a slave to progress?" Its voice was little more than a hiss.

I found it a struggle to speak. "I’m so cold. I just want to feel warmth again. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to rest in a comfortable bed. I just want to sleep soundly, dream pleasantly."

"Then join me."

The shadowy form approached and when it was upon me, I knew that it was a woman. Old, ages old, it seemed, but a woman nonetheless.

"You are the one they call Kent," she said. I nodded. "You can rest with me." She held out her hand. I hesitated, then took it, closing my eyes. Then I was pulled along, until there was no ground below me. I fell down on top of the long dead woman; she was little more than a skeleton in rags. As the soil backfilled on top of us, she embraced me, kissed me, and with the taste of the earth in my mouth I fell asleep.

Copyright Darren McCormick 2006

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