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Crime of the Scene
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Crime of the Scene

by Russell Flinn

I woke.

Darkness imperceptibly dilutes and shapes emerge, grey and indistinct in their extremities. Our room looks fashioned from dust.

Beside me, Helen stirred, night thoughts striving to rouse her. I envied her the rest, the calm. I am truly jealous. For days now I have had wakefulness punctuate my nights and I have had trouble deciding if this was as much a problem with waking as it is with sleeping.

I made sudden, spiteful movements in the bed, trying to wake my wife as accidentally as I can seem. All I heard in response were variations in breathing. Defeated, I tried to let my breast rise and fall in time with hers, as though to match her pattern might grant me what she has but I was too strict with nerves and the subtle tide slips out of synch. It only made me worse.

Light began to make stealthy claims on the room. Above me the naked bulb looked nothing less than a tear of wax frozen in mid-fall by the chill of our bedroom. Even though I could not sleep I found I could dream just as easily and I let the droplet of grey grease fall, slower than its apparent weight would suggest, until it struck my face, gloving it fully upon landing. I imagined Helen waking, eyes crusty and slow as her senses, looking at me and seeing only a featureless mound where my face had been.

The dream slipped from my guidance into a life of its own. In it I had forgotten about breathing under the weight of this new identity, so I supposed I did not have to, except once without warning to make Helen start. I sensed her draw closer and feared she had tried to touch the grey amorphous mass, the motion of her hands fashioning me some new face as a sculptor might unearth one from clay. I did not welcome her participation.

And then, with delicious care, I set to removing the mask no, not mask for that implies a face or at least a representation of one I removed this new absence from my true visage. I actually did perform the action with my hands, this time careful not to wake Helen because I wanted that moment to myself. The cold and supple grip of it slipped free with the sound of a perfunctory kiss, a familiar one in that room, and I opened my eyes to the inverted face above mine, filling with shadows that suggest expressions I did not care to interpret. The face grows warmer as heat commuted from my trembling fingers and maybe that is what softened it, causing it to reach downwards. It is an illusion. It must be. Even, as it reached down to kiss.

I went into the bathroom and masturbated as if trying to shake the persistent image from me via that exit. I had taken to this activity more and more as my sleep grew less and less but it had always been an important outlet for my frequent boredoms and frustration. Most evenings of my married life I had wanked, and more often with Helen's vagina than my compliant fist, her confines corralling my workman-like release as I bestrode her. One way or the other I would always find myself caught in tissue.

"This used to bother me as a child," I said through a mouthful of toast. Bill Bixby was walking away from me on the black and white portable television on our kitchen table, belongings slung over a weary shoulder.

Helen, by now used to my disconnected remarks, which she often put down to an inability to form thoughts before voicing them, busied herself at the noisy sink.

"It's the music. Not exactly the typical superhero fare. Or should that be fanfare?" She giggled at her own joke, which saved me the job. I switched the channel. Now on the dwarfish screen some early-bird soap was rendered a classic look by the monochrome. "When there's nothing to watch, that's a clue not to," she scolded suddenly.

I felt as if she was making some broader observation, but knew what was most likely on her mind. Before I could reply she added: "I watch you sometimes and it reminds me of those staring competitions they have in playgrounds. The TV will always win while it's on."

"It might surprise you to learn that I do not sit about the house all day watching the TV. I am looking for work, not excuses not to."

By the time I had finished the last bite of toast she was gone, having kissed me goodbye. I knew this because I could feel its damp remaining on my forehead.

We live in terraced housing not far from the centre of town. A shorter walk in the opposite direction brings you to a park and it was the choice I made that day. The street was filled with the noise of children rather than children themselves, carried on the wind from gardens and open windows. I heard the high knock of a bat and ball, the low of a foot and ball and the looped sound effects of video games. This was Neighbourhood Watch country, a way of enforcing a sense of community and responsibility where there was none. The only other residents I knew by name were those directly opposite and then only because we had received their mail in error on occasion.

Ordinarily, the park was filled with homemakers of both sexes at that time of day, parading their offspring along the tarmac catwalks. Occasionally paths would cross and compliments be awarded for the best-presented child or the sweetest face. Gloriously redundant and insincere, of course, as were the people who granted them. They were all winners in their parents' eyes, just as I imagined my parents might have said about me had they only waited to find out.

Yet the park was largely deserted today, except for a small gathering of young mothers who had got as near to the Gents toilets as the yellow and black plastic ribbons permitted. It was natural for me to take the path that brought me nearest to it, and though I did not want to appear yet one more voyeur, I continued on my normal route. The eyes of the women moved without an inclination of their heads to betray that they had seen me. I noticed that those who had children in pushchairs had placed them in such a way as to expose them an optimum view of the concrete structure, as if programming some warning into the infants brain of what had taken place there.

More likely, they just assumed a child's curiosity was as lacking in discernment and taste as an adult's vicarious morbidity, especially as I heard their conversation carried nearer to me by the breeze.

"It's disgusting," said one, although I doubted she was referring to the murder itself. "Makes you not want to risk letting your kids come here." She jogged the pushchair to quieten her grizzling toddler and the irony almost raised a scornful laugh within me, were it not for the proximity of the crime scene.

"I don't mind what they get up to, so long as its behind closed doors," another voice added, giving me the oddest impression she wasnt entirely referring to the victim.

Garry and Diane arrived at eight though they had clearly been drinking long before, loquacious and amusing as ever. As usual, Helen's brother was more perfumed than his wife, deodorant and after-shave forming an aura of sweet spices that lingered in my mind as much as it did in our home as we returned later that night.

Not that Di was lacking fragrance, and although she showed restraint in her scent she more than made up for it in make-up and lotions which frequently, as today, covered more of her than the clothes she wore. For a married couple, they still dressed and smelled like they want to be seen as single and never more so than when they were making a foray into the towns nightclubs.

I was dressed in the clothes that Helen had pressed for me, laid out on the bed as if by some impatient undertaker. I could not describe them without having to find a mirror something I rarely chose to do except that they were tight and uncomfortable, still baking from the iron's flat heat.

Inside the club that Di had selected for us her decision-making dictated by drinks prices as normal - we did what we could not to have our little group disentangled by the mass of dancing, swigging strangers. In the confusion of bodies I grasped Helen's hand, and it was only when her brother gave me a quick, astonished smile that I realised it was his that I held and we shared a nervous smile that only made it feel worse than a mistake.

Helen and Di were already at the bar, Di a consummate alcoholic drinking straight from the bottle in long gulps that made a pulsing vein of her throat. Neither Helen nor her brother looked approving, my wife making a show of dainty sips perhaps in the hope that Di might redress herself out of shame at the sheer masculinity of her drinking. Sometimes when Helen was at work Garry would visit me at our home and sit discussing his partner's problem by not mentioning it at all. He would talk about meaningless trivia and the events of the week, but his eyes and his gradual relaxation in my company told me it was his coded way of expressing his anxiety without ever giving it a name. I would feel closer to him in those moments than at any other time, and had only recently wondered if I too was telling him something with my talk of pool games, broken appliances and my need to find the right job.

Throughout the night I felt I caught glimpses of someone I should know among the faces, all bobbing and shouting to each other like the spilled passengers of a sinking ship soon to be washed-up come the morning. This particular face, however, was by turns brilliantly red and drained to grey - through the explosive beats of the club lighting I imagined - and the only time it remained in view long enough for me to watch it stare back I realised it was my own face glaring back at me from a mirrored wall. The drink must have been reaching further than my straining bladder.

I took my place in the restless queue wanting the urinals and very soon I felt restless too, distracting myself from the uneasy sense that the stickiness I felt underfoot had come from something more than the clumsy spillage of previous patrons by interpreting patterns in the chipped and broken tiling. All that consumed me was what nature of violence could have caused such damage. Until recently I had always thought that such places were passive areas in life, places wherein we pause momentarily before going on with our lives. Now all I could think of was violence, not all of it overt but somewhere beneath the surface waiting to erupt, perhaps without reason.

"Having a good time?" The stranger addressed me with such a vague expression that I wondered for a moment if he was referring to the club or the toilets. He was drunk, and perhaps so was I, given the random sequence of my thoughts.

I tried to give my answer with a feeble smile, but he persisted, asking the same question with more assertion. My thoughts of unspecified aggression had left me nervous and I gave him what I thought would appease him.

"It's not bad, thanks. I'm still quite new to this."

His expression slipped beyond reading, and I felt suddenly desperate to be understood. "Clubbing. Not really my scene."

"What is your scene then, mate?" he called to me, but by then I was heading for the door and headlong into the throng, safe among the crowd again. I tried not to recall how little his final remark had sounded like an invitation to do more than answer.

We hardly spoke in the taxi home, Helen and I, but the driver supplied enough conversation for the three of us. As we neared our home Helen took my hand and placed it on her thigh and then moved both almost imperceptibly towards her groin, making it clear what was expected of me upon our return.

"It's okay," she told me as I knelt back from her drooping thighs, meaning that I had succeeded only in failing her. "You've had a bit to drink. But not that much to drink," she added, through a glance.

"Looks that way, doesn't it?" I replied to both questions, making it my excuse to flee her reproachful silence and struggle in the darkness for the bedroom door and the lavatory, where I would feel less of my discomfort.

Hiding from her gaze made things easier, except that as I stepped into the bathroom I had a sense that something even more impatient was waiting there for me. As unnerved as I was of its presence, I left the light off. Seeing it could only make it real.

But it was only the darkness itself, and I soon switched the spiteful glare of the bathroom light on to prove my dumb crapulence. The coarse light simply showed me a naked, ashen body with rude sketches of hair on too rounded a torso, so unlike how I had been when Helen and I had first met.

I glanced down at the betraying limb that slumped among its pubic refuge, begging it to life with my mouth. But it was as responsive to mine as it had been to hers, stoic only in its spinelessness.

I forced it to piss, thinking the parallels of one function might inspire it to the other, but once the dwindling arc staggered to an eventual halt as though I saw it through sticking frames of celluloid it seemed even less compliant as if it had drained more effort than urine.

I switched myself into darkness and let my slowly accustoming eyes scrape out my grey shape from the blackness like a root from soil. For all my indistinct lines I began to divine what Helen might still see in me. Still more I began to see what she might have seen in others that night, as though I was granted a glimpse through her searching eyes at those bloated arms and chests that looked to have risen like a bread they baked beneath tanning beds and weekends of Spanish sun. I saw how she looked at them, the way I had once looked at her. In the dimness I could see where her memories of them might coincide with the reality of me, making it easier to remember them and to forget me.

As I at last began to stir, reaching out from the nest of matted hair as a gaping-mouthed bird and as narrow in purpose, I witnessed my arm seem almost to operate by its self, stretching around as though from behind, to begin what I hoped Helen would help me finish. I saw rather than experienced the dim movement at my waist until I gradually felt the warmth breaking out like sweat across my skin. Then I knew a hand stronger than it had ever seemed before, saw the slack V of my sagging tits blurred into pertness, my waist slimmer for the darkness and I knew I might have concluded my need then and there were it not for the thought of what I would be taking back into the bedroom with me. The mirror had given me a glimpse of what I might yet be and I tried to retain it on my eyes like the shadow of a summer's sun, this strange new role spurring me on.

I found her on top of the sheets, showing me just enough so that I realised she must have been anticipating my triumphant return and it was no more than the work of a moment to nudge her knees to either side of my waist and sink myself deep in her. It had been some time since this sort of passion had glued us mouth and hip, tongue and penis sewing purposefully at her gasping yawns of flesh. She cried aloud throughout, making them seem more like open wounds that I was delightedly widening. She wept with them.

I felt too powerful to be wrong, determined that she was enacting some fancy that had long lingered behind her eyes during our less fulfilling lovemaking, when neither of us had entertained the inkling to stop or the heart to go on. Perhaps she imagined some barely consensual moment with a stranger, which this was - as much for me as for her.

Yes, I felt certain.

In every sense, I felt certain. Not the bland presence that lay beside her each night. I was equal to her fantasies, aloft on my arms at that point, only my thighs and waist meeting hers, the rest of me either inside or above her.

She began to grunt deep in her chest towards the end. It was as if every lunge of skin were shoving the air from her faster than she could inhale it, a low animal sound that startled me pleasantly and brought my closing stabs to an almost uncontrollable frenzy. I was grinning madly, I knew.

She was silent for a while, except that she wasn't I was simply deaf to anything but the declining rage of blood in my skull. When at last I leaned close to her, straining for soft coos of satisfaction, she was almost whimpering and when I moved to kiss her so as to stopper the disquieting noise I caught only a mouthful of hair from the back of her head. The flat of her breasts, so untypical and yet so goading to me, had been the blades of her shoulders cast in relief with the twilight. The whimpers seemed like tears too unexpected to find a voice. I withdrew from her and her side of the bed, unable to bear the touch of her again that night.

She never mentioned it once it was over, and somehow I knew that as long as she was silent I was safe. Possibly she was trying to pretend it hadn't been happening to her. Worse still, I was numb with the notion that I had been pretending it wasn't happening to her either. If she felt that I had been a stranger that night then there was a creeping consensus between us. I imagined that for those few seconds there had been as many as four identities merged in the moment, not sufficiently askew as to feel wholly alien.

I certainly could never explain to her why I had been so different, that it was because it was she who had been the stranger in our bed that night. I lay awake, inert, horrified. My penis felt tacky from more than just my semen but I dare not go to the bathroom again because I had by now remembered that no mirror had ever hung there.

I said goodbye to her that morning realising that our future now lay in the hands of her work colleagues. They knew and liked her, but few knew me and those I had met I had made little effort to be interested in. It was going to be that much easier for them to turn on me, particularly once the nature of my transgression was known. They were women, after all.

I sat for long moments wishing furiously that I had not done it to her that night, except that feeling that way told me too much of what I did not want to hear.

I left our house by the back door, having plucked up the courage to discover that the pair of shadows from beneath it were only a couple of milk bottles and not a figure waiting with endless patience for me to emerge at last. If it didn't knock then perhaps it was because with time it no longer could, I thought distractedly, dealing as much with what I expected to find as that which I did.

The park seemed less busy than usual, although this was more a result of my deliberate fogging of the world around me than of fact. I was focussed solely on destinations now, my progress throughout guided by predetermined waypoints that served as anchors in a rapidly unfamiliar life. I knew that at any time Helen was being told that I had possibly raped her and certainly sodomised her and I felt as if I should be there to explain that I really had not. Not as much as I had intended it to be someone other than her. What was I telling myself? The conclusions were coy, scattering like motes as I swiped to grasp something that resembled thoughts that ran parallel to my own yet had till now only crossed their path last night. Except that was not true, was it?

Seeing the comparative quiet of the Benefits Agency felt like finding the cool peace of a chapel, and for a time I gathered enough of a sense of direction for my thoughts that I was able to ask the desk staff for the newspapers.

"Over there, sir. Do you have anything in mind?" the dumpy girl asked me. She wore an ill-fitting suit made more so by its androgyny.

"Yes," I answered, unsure what I meant.

I felt she was addressing my situation when she added, "Plenty of vacancies in today."

"Maybe, while I'm here," I replied, which made me sound as vague as my response, and took a seat near the stack of recent newspapers.

They went back further than I needed, only glancing at the headlines to see what I was really concerned with.

KILLER URGENTLY SOUGHT, it read, darkly apt given my surroundings. The details absorbed me, albeit as sketchy as the second-hand reports I had heard Helen discussing on the phone with her friends. It needed little embellishment.

According to the newspapers, the man had been found murdered some time in the afternoon and in the absence of any witnesses it was believed the last person to see him alive would most likely be the suspect they sought.

Of course, received wisdom had it that the victim knew his attacker, but in this case I began to wonder exactly how well that could be. Perhaps more than anyone realised.

The circumstances of the death were described only in terms of comments quoted from a press conference and ran from vicious and bizarre to particularly nasty. The identity of the victim was still unknown, Police claimed. He had carried no identification, lending probity to the notion that this was a mugging that had been tragically exaggerated by circumstances. Perhaps he had been homeless, I thought. Dispossessed. Given the dubious nature of his location, I wondered if he had even known who he was himself. Or what he was.

By now my head was aflame with thought. I no longer cared about what Helen would say when she got home. Somehow it did not matter. She had told me I should find something to do with myself and now I felt a stirring in my skull that felt like the purpose she was always hinting at. When I saw the last few headlines I sensed the direction to which my day, my life had been heading now that I had no opportunity to avoid it any longer.

The artists impression of the victim, in the absence of any photograph, stared out at me. I returned the blank gaze, searching the face for something I could recognise. If I could find something that I recalled, something common to my own life then perhaps I would be rid of it.

But it remained stubbornly obscure, its very lifelessness making it less identifiable than the silhouette of a man that the paper had used to give lurid form to the culprit. Surely the victim had been more than just a mass of inky pixels, like atoms, as likely to fly apart or collapse under my scrutiny as to solidify into the gleaming red face that I had seen peering up at me from the cubicle floor?

I knew where I had to go once I saw the photo of the murder scene streamed with tape like bunting, and why not the murder had been a glorious celebration of oppression, of the restoration of all that was normal in the world. It was the final point along the way, everything compelling me to seek it out and confront it. Only then would I be able to put the name to that face. I would remember who he was. It did not strike me as odd that his identity was now more vital to me than my own.

To those in the Benefits office I must have left like a man who has suddenly realised some appointment, and I felt an assuredness that my urgency would become clear to me once I had arrived. As I walked with fierce purpose, I was dimly aware of colliding with other pedestrians, of the angry horns of vehicles shrieking to a stop none of them could reach me or halt me.

I was afraid I was losing my mind, but suddenly less so with that than with what I might find in its place.

The face could have been so many people. It could have been Tim, my best friend from school. I had not thought of him for years, but now it was as if he were only an hour into my past and even then the flood of memories was not as vivid as that one occasion when he had piggy-backed me to school on his bicycle, his buttocks grinding at my groin, waking it and so much else.

Still more came, like reverse-memories that instead of fading with the passage of time had only grown in clarity. My mind was suddenly crowded with thoughts of hands shook a moment too long, of arms around shoulders, of faces surely too close to be of comfort. All strangers I told myself, then as now. I remembered Garry who looked so much like Helen that I was scarcely able to tell them apart sometimes.


I remembered most of all, as I locked myself into the cubicle that was now much cleaner than the rest, that single, pleading eye in a leaking face. A face that had been scrupulously mutilated out of some private hatred. Now I could be sure I would know its name. Maybe it would have been the large nervous figure who had sidled up beside me, looked too earnestly, smiled too broadly as I had tried to urinate to prove that I needed to. Perhaps he had been searching my face for some sign of himself as I realised I had been with the sketch in the newspaper. I had left him there alive, of that I had no doubt, and refused to believe the reason I had gone back inside was from any other motive than to challenge his brazen loitering. Upon my return, the tiled walls had been alive with the reflected sounds of more dripping than I had noticed before. When I saw the face looking out at me, trying to form an expression with what remained, I had turned and fled.

I recognised what it had been trying to convey now, for I felt it myself. I saw the sadness, the shame, the fear and the despair of being faced with the inevitable. More than that, I knew how he had died. The safety razor was a subtle weapon, so easily secreted. Even from your self, I realised, as I withdrew it from my trouser pocket.

I knew that I would have to use toilet paper to hold the blade. It would become increasingly difficult to hold as it made its opening moves. I know that while I still have an eye to see, I have one more thing to do before things begin to slow and the silence of my gleaming-white cell begins to fill my skull. I will briefly consider breaking the razor to pieces as a parent might make hard medicine easier to palate. Instead, in defiance as much as a final bravery, I will slip the silver tongue whole over mine and for all the urge to spit it out I will swallow hard, harder, harder still.

Something told me that I had only to flush the blade away after much of its business had been done to save myself, passing on the suffering to another as must have happened to me. Except that this had been meant for me, and with me it would end. No one else would die in my place. It had been curse enough to have lived in it.

For now I was now the very warning that I had chosen to ignore. Let them look for a killer, ignoring this bloody cry. Perhaps one will be found. But right now there is only me, the impatient blade and a torrent of building memories that were my own private intimation. I pray that I take them with me as I leave, and the pain comes home one final time.

You pray, too.

Copyright Russ Flinn 2004
Russ Flinn has appeared in Dark Dreams, Phenix and Mustard - a collection of three of his pieces was published by the BFS under the title Stirring Within and the tale Subway Story was selected from it by Ramsey Campbell and Steve Jones for Best New Horror 3 ...
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