The Mechanic's Curse
The Mechanic's Curse brings together Clive Gilson's collected short stories in a single volume. These stories have been previously published in anthologies and online magazines. Clive's love of magical realism from writers such as Angela Carter, and the glories of traditional folk and faery tales shines through. These stories in particular mix the macabre and the fey and tradition with a loving touch.
IN THIS WORLD, MADE dark prematurely by a childhood illness, distance is gauged by the tap of a brass ferule at the end of a white plastic stick. The measured spaces between objects in this house are only ever changed after a considerable period of thought and an endless redrawing of mental maps. Evolution is the key. The owner of the house prefers a familiar shade and shadow. There are regular visits by cleaners and friends and helpers, and they all know the drill of place and space. The owner of this house is a time served veteran of bruise and trip and painful assimilations, having lived with this particular singularity in the old family home in North Devon for nearly half a century.
That sense of singularity, of personal uniqueness, is another key. Solitude has become a positive boon. It is a choice, and within these bounds a regularity of step and orientation allows for a three-dimensional, feeling, breathing immersion in a version of the physical world unknown to the sighted. Clues abound. There are always cyphers available if you know how to look for them. Life is a never ending, interlocking set of puzzles solved in non-visual ways. In this place of safety the answers may end up being the same as they are anywhere else in the world but the workings out are quite different. On this night all feels well with creation and heaven will remain warm and cosy so long as everything and everyone remains just so.
The bathroom, for example, is laid out in the same way whenever anyone cleans. The bather maintains that order in the interim. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner always sit at the head end of the bath, to the left hand side on a tiled ledge, shampoo furthest from the wall. The weekly refresh of soap always sits in the dish underneath the mixer taps. Care is needed here. When not using the much more convenient shower in the en suite, the bather must wait for the stored heat in the metal tap to dissipate before feeling for Imperial Leather. The bather must make a constant judgement of distance using time and innate renderings of topography. A fully drawn bath, however, is one of life’s little luxuries and always worth that effort.
The toothbrush will be in the wall-mounted holder to the right of the sink along with the toothpaste. There is a cupboard above the toilet with supplies, but here again the bather has to be careful. There is always the risk of bruising on door edges if they are left open and the brushing of teeth with ill-found Deep Heat is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime event. The bather still winces at the thought of that fire-gummed evening, especially given a supposed heightening of non-visual senses such as smell that should guard against such mishaps. The blame fell ultimately on one too many scotches in mixed company on a rare outing to the Wrecker’s Retreat bar at Hartland Quay Hotel.
In the bedroom clothes are laid out on the Ottoman at the foot of the bed. Always black; black underwear, black socks, a black tee shirt, a black jumper and black denim. There is a large wooden linen press opposite the bed, Victorian apparently, and each item of clothing has a slide out tray. Knowing the order of things is enough. Clothes are sourced on a semi-industrial scale, meaning that socks, underwear, tee shirts et al are bought in the same style and in bulk from a suitably well-stocked sports retailer. The method is straightforward. Anything other than black could easily become a garish melange and the dresser does not wish to cause offence. The near-flung worlds through which this soul walks out need no more startling. Black is useful. Black hides stains. Black is always stylish. Black has a certain moody quality about it. Black is timeless. Black is… cool.
With the latest time-check on the radio in the kitchen the bather’s heart rate drops noticeably. Wednesday night. Bath and bed. Clean, crisp sheets and a fresh, plumped duvet, under which a flushed, pink-skinned body will slide into blissful sleep. That radio is now silent, it’s comforting sounds replaced by the equally satisfying gurgle and swirl of hot water flowing into the bath. The bather kneels down at the side of the bath, regularly measuring the depth of the water against the enamel sidewall with hand-spans. This is a world where, for the want of a better phrase, pots must be watched no matter how long the boil.
When the heat of the day’s emotions and activities blend into and then dissolve in the rising, steamy warmth of the bathroom, it is in these contemplative moments that the bather tends to reminisce, and often drifts back into memories of sight. After so many years these memories are little more than impressionistic sweeps of a thick horsehair brush on an old, over-painted canvas. Fields and skies and the shades upon a wall, those huge landscapes that fill the mind of the child at such a young age, were never really, never carefully categorised or memorised. They are layers of grain and granularity that merge and bleed into one another. The blind years far outweigh the limited and unreliable experiences of childish sight.
Six years in the visual, of which the first three bear little on the memory, are too few to create a meaningful sense of loss. As a child the bather coped. As a teenager the bather railed and spat but eventually came to realise that the louder you shout at the world then the heavier the blows that rain back down upon your head. It was only when the rages subsided that the bather found the depth and the majesty that underlies the sublime nature of complexity in translation and sensory awareness. With that maturity came a new appreciation of beauty. Once again the singularity is expressed. In the same way that reading a book is far more personally satisfying in the imagination than watching a film, so it is with the bather’s unsighted perception of the world at large. The bather considers that for the unsighted there is philosophical shift, an inherent theoretical difference to the metaphysics of blindness, and all of it is expressed simply and elegantly by the Morse code tappings of brass ferules on skirting boards, on paving stones and chair legs.
At one hand-span from the top the taps are closed off. This is the “Eureka” moment in every sense. One hand-span is more than sufficient to cope with the Archimedean displacement of water caused by the ever-increasing volume of the bather’s spreading, middle-aged body. One hand-span also means that same body will be covered in hot, steamy water, and with that immersion comes the melting. Every ache and every care will dissipate and be washed away, leaving just an empty mind bobbing along as gentle ripples wander across the water’s surface while the bather settles unthinking into this amniotic comfort zone.
The bather stands up, feeling a slight pinprick behind the knees as circulation starts to flow freely after this spell kneeling beside the bath. The art in undressing is in the placement of the discarded clothes. The bather cannot simply kick the layers off for fear of mould and festering. Once the black tee shirt is removed, the bather carefully places socks, underwear and jeans inside that tee shirt and places the bundle down by the closed door, ready for the carry out to the dirty linen basket at the far end of the upper landing. If in any doubt the door’s jamming acts as a suitable reminder to do the day’s laundry.
A fleecy, calf length dressing gown hangs ready and warm on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. None of the friends and carers and cleaners has had the heart to tell the bather that the dressing gown is fluorescent orange. As the bather stands up and shifts carefully to the left there is the sound of a knee bumping against the wooden frame that hides the inner workings of pipe and valve and drain beneath the enamel bath. The bather grimaces and sucks in a short breath, but the pain is fleeting and the draw of hot water is utterly compelling. Left leg first. A slight twist of the foot to make sure that weight is anchored and there will be no slipping. The hot water tingles against the skin, but pleasantly so.
Right leg. The bather bends forward and rests hands on the sides of the bath before gently starting to kneel, feeling every inch of skin thrill to the heat prickle of submersion. Once kneeling, and feeling the water lap against belly and buttocks, the bather lifts up slightly and slides legs straight towards the taps before settling back down. The enamel head end wall of the bath is cold above the water line as a back comes to rest. Amid rising tendrils of steam, knees bending upwards slightly, the bather slides down until just a head covered in damp, greying hair is visible above the still waters.
Inner heat rises, and with it a human core drifts into sweet meltdown as water laps across stomach and breast. A mind empties, becoming one with the moment in heat and foetal simplicity. Time is forgotten. The moment lingers on. A house creaks and groans, hunkering down in the winter winds that blow up from the Southwest in Atlantic squallings that drive the rain horizontally across the cliff-tops. The sounds of boards expanding where central heating pipes run, of sash window frames shifting uneasily as gusts buffet and crack against the old stone walls, these are the sounds of long loved comfort. Deep in the heat haze, drowning under waves of still rising steam, just before the water starts to turn towards the lukewarm, the bather luxuriates.
But the moment has a purpose. The drift is sublime and yet is still a controlled moment. Reaching up and to the left behind a head, the bather feels for bottles. There are two, and while neither is of the Deep Heat variety, it is still better to test. Taking each bottle in turn the bather pours a drop of liquid onto fingers and rubs. The first bottle is the conditioner. It is out of place, but the bather supposes that these things are inevitable wherever human beings may roam. The conditioner bottle is put back in its correct place against the left hand wall. The bather sinks down into the water, covering a sweat soaked brow. Rising again, shampoo is applied and vigorously rubbed into a scalp. The process is repeated, but this time, feeling lazily replete, the bather uses the shampoo to wash down under arms, pelvis, stomach and legs. Once rinsed off again the final dose of conditioner is applied to dripping wet hair and the meditation at the head end of the bath begins again as chemicals feed hair for a moment or two longer.
A break in thought. A frown. The flat-line brainwave-drift spikes sharply. There is a call, an indefinite signal, a disturbance. These moments of equilibrium pivot almost imperceptibly on a fulcrum that has shifted a millimetre off centre. The bather senses rather than feels the chill slide of outside air as a breeze pulses slowly through the building. An impossible thing. All doors and windows are braced and barred against winter storms. This chill wind is just a gust breaking through the vent at the top of the double-glazed bathroom window. The imagined voice in the hallway is one of those momentary phantasms, a playful childhood friend obscured by mists and clouds. The familiar shade of black that remains at most other times solidly uniform behind these dimmed eyes has suddenly started to oscillate, deepening and shifting in three-dimensional planes that drag a body in towards the furthermost, darkest pit. The bather sits slowly up, feeling water run down a chest and a back from shoulders and neck and hair. The air is cold against exposed skin. Unnaturally cold. A sound. A house in motion in the black shadows exposed to a mind now very sharply awake.
Speed of thought. Sitting upright now, the bather takes stock. A storm. The house is mid-Victorian. Whatever technology and modernity is brought to bear on the place, its fabric is old and the natural world has a habit of disregarding human endeavour. This is just a natural thing, a moment of solitude writ large in the imagination. The bather considers this. Bath-time meditations are an open invitation to the monsters of childhood. A memory takes shape; a dog long gone to the sodden earth in the fields at the back of the house, but a dog that the bather sometimes fancies to see in the misty corners of the world. Perhaps that floorboard step beyond the door is a manifestation of loss. A dog is missed at times like these. The bather remembers how a dog would lie in the open bathroom doorway, facing out, guarding the alpha. A smile. A silliness. A whimsy in winter darks.
A nagging doubt. It occurs to the bather to remember the conditioner bottle. Why was it in the wrong place? A simple human error? A cleaner or a friend being forgetful or distracted? The thought is dismissed but it is too late. There is a sense of dislocation. The beam and fulcrum shift a little further from the centre and the world tilts. The bather places both hands on the side of the bath and begins to rise up, water cascading from abdomen and buttocks, making unwelcome noise, signalling a location, making the mark easy to find, but the urgency of the moment outweighs the tell.
Halfway towards the standing, neither in nor out of the foetal sac, the bather stays the move. Conditioner starts to dry out on a forehead. Again there comes that chill breath on the neck of the world. Stronger this time. Colder. The bather works hard to reach a state of conviction. Blood pulses in veins. The previously stilled heart beat now taps out the rhythms of rising panic. Unseeing eyes widen involuntarily. A catching of inner airs again, a willing of the world into familiar shapes. They are one and the same, the bather and the house, both growing old and creaking in their joints and broken skins.
The skin of the night, that shaded veneer from behind which a person might peer out at the darkling terrors, stretches taut. The hint of a footstep. That vague recognition of sweat and musk. An essence of the doorknob rattle and the bone breaker’s waltz. The bather sinks back down into the tepid waters of the drowning pool. Geography has warped. Paths and passages are bent out of shape. The bather thinks too quickly to form the familiar shapes that usually illuminate this darkness, a darkness in which the bather should be the more familiar. The bather gasps once, then twice, verging on hyperventilation. Washing over a face, these ripples, these half-formed childhood night-darks, drive an imagination in overdrive and chalk white fingers wrap themselves around a doorframe.
The bather screams inwardly, a last spasm, and then subsides, calming and stilling the beating of a heart. There is nothing more to do. The bather cannot move. The wind freaks are cracking the upper landing walls. The door handle. The door handle rattle. The half-heard howl from the back fields. The bather takes one last deep draught of air and holds a breath, sliding down beneath the black waters. Conditioner scum floats on the surface of the bath water above the bather’s head. A bathroom door opens and wedges on a pile of discarded clothes…