Dora was fascinated by my piercings, tilting her head as she squinted at them, the tip of her nose virtually touching my cheek. I let her touch the bits of bone and wood and silverware poking out while she asked questions, what each piece meant to me, where I got them, how they made me feel to wear. I tried to be detailed, not sure what she wanted to hear.
“Years ago,” she said, “we only saw things like this in the National Geographic….” Tugging, slightly, on my bottom lip tusk. “On pygmies… Just before they ate the camera man!” And she laughed the longest, dirtiest laugh, like a dead bird rattling down a drain pipe.
She made me unwind my neckerchief to examine the tattoos.
She said, carefully, “You don’t look like this on the other side, though, do you?”
I felt myself colour beneath the ink.
“No,” I said.
After a long minute she said, “A midlife crisis is nothing next to a mid-death one, believe me”, and patted me on my knee.
Back in the flat where she used to live, her son Hubert asked ‘Was she there? Did she say anything?”
I looked at his damp expectant face, at Moira with her crushed, wine-stained lips.
I had a bolt of wine myself and said “She says ‘it’s good to be prepared’. Does that mean anything to you?”
“ ‘It’s good to be prepared’,” I repeated, nodding for extra conviction.
I didn’t understand why but Dora never had anything for me to pass on to him. Most of the dead I knew seized at the chance to communicate with loved ones; she barely acknowledged his existence. The one time I’d pushed her for a message to take back, she’d tutted, loudly, and said “Tell him to charge the whore room and board!”, meaning Moira. I didn’t, of course. I wondered about Hubert letting her live there, in his mother’s old room, whether he was lonely. When I’d first met them…. Well, clearly I was wrong about my first thoughts.
Thankfully, Hubert believed most of the drivel I came up with to fill the gaps. It’s not as though I was lying about making contact with his late mother. We simply didn’t talk about him much. I made the mistake once of saying that she sent her love, and he looked as though he’d caught me lifting his wallet. I didn’t report anything to that effect again.
Sometimes Dora liked to talk about her life, other times not. She told me about meeting her husband, Martin, in the Sixties. “Cheeks like hard red apples. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.” He was living in Peterborough now. Mostly, she wanted to talk about me, or current affairs. I had to start watching the news to keep up.
Another twilit evening: tromping over the Heath to Hubert’s, bottles clanging in a carrier bag. The fair was back, lights blazing, machinery hurling children into the sky. I thought about stopping to buy candyfloss for Moira, but I’d never seen her eat anything except crisps, on the days she ate at all, so swung wide of the crowds and into the hollows.
The block of flats and treeline were black against the sky, a few lit windows suspended warm and golden like fruit in aspic. Syrupy peaches.
Hubert answered the door, in a George Melly suit shedding tiny seams of white cotton.
I followed him up the stairs and stood at the living room window, listening to the screams below, while he fetched drinks. The thin glass trembled slightly in its frame. I touched it – cold from the wind. When I pulled my fingertips away, they left four fleeting ghosts.
“Do you want to go?” asked Hubert. “We can, after, if you want. I like the crowds.” He’d placed a hand on my shoulder, and left it there. I gently removed it, and he shuddered. “Christ, you’re freezing!’ he said, and took a step backwards.
“Halfway between worlds,” I smiled. Always a ham.
Moira, on the edge of her bed, more or less held my gaze, daring me to look down, as she wriggled out of her jeans. “What colour are my eyes?”, she demanded. Her pale thighs and knees blurred in the bottom of my vision. “Hazel,” I said. At the top of her legs, a tiny furrowed patch of cotton. “Hazel and violet.” It was close enough to widen her pupils slightly in the dimness of her bedside lamp.
I notice Dora, in the corner of the room, sipping her coffee from the side of the cup, like a letter opener taken to an envelope.
“Nothing’s happening!” I protested. “She likes me to keep her company ‘til she’s asleep, that’s all! Look, she’s under the covers and snoring already.”
Sadly, this was all too true. I walked back to the Tube station after most of these visits with an ache in my lower belly that could bend me double. You’d think I would learn.
Dora said nothing. Usually I had to go to her side to hear from her. Maybe she’d gone back already. She’d asked me before why I didn’t find myself a nice girl, instead of wasting time on this drunk who slept with every man in London except for me and her son – “If only!” “You could do better, my little cannibal,” she added.
How did she know this about Moira? I didn’t know this, and I was in the same world as her.
It had been Moira who’d found my card, pinned up on a notice board in the bookshop she worked at (when she remembered to go.) “You have to be careful,” I warned her. “They won’t put up with that forever.”
She wet her smile with a vodka and orange, and said “My manager Joyce likes me,” always floating on a swell of charm.
“Does Hubert like you? You don’t seem to have much in common.”
“Are you kidding? No! He just wants someone to let the cat in and out.”
“Isn’t that what the cat flap’s for?”
She shrugged and lit a Silk Cut. She’d smoke anything.
“Where is the cat anyway?” I asked.
“Who knows? I haven’t seen it in weeks.”
I lied to all of my clients that at least three people always had to be present. “You’ve seen séances in films,” I’d babble. “The dead like a crowd.” The truth was, I hated being alone with unhappy people, unless I was trying to bed them.
Hubert and I sometimes found ourselves waiting for Moira to return from her wanderings over the Heath. I pictured her out there with the runaway cat, stalking birds together from the bushes.
“Do you resent your name?” I asked, abruptly, before realising what I’d said.
“‘Hubert’? No! Why would I? ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’, Hubert Selby Jr. Have you read it? Wonderful book.”
“No,” I said, though I later realised I had.
“My parents were quite underground, bohemian…” He waved his fingers in the air.
“Never heard of it!” said Dora, when I asked.
“What was your husband like? Was he a big reader?”
That one vague story she’d told me aside, she didn’t seem to enjoy talking about him.
“I don’t remember now. Everything fades. If you stayed with me here all the time, I could let go of life entirely.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that.
Hubert, meanwhile, cleared a space in what he laughingly called ‘the office’.
“You could move in here,” he said. “Save on rent for a few months, or however long.”
We sat looking at each other in the late afternoon sunlight. Across the street, a loose tarpaulin was banging against some scaffolding in the wind and I watched that out of the window for a minute or two.
“You’re here all the time anyway,” he said, uncomplainingly. “And I know Moira would be thrilled.”
Moira didn’t look thrilled. “You want me to move into the office so you can have my room?”
I looked over her shoulder into the office, at another huge single pane shivering in its woodwork behind her. “I need the bigger space, in case I have clients ‘round.”
Moira’s, previously Dora’s, room had four solid walls. With the door closed, nothing got in, no draughts, no light. Nice and warm. Moira might even have to make her way back to it, sooner or later, even if it meant sharing.
“Does he want me to leave? He could just ask!” she said, and ground her cigarette out on the hallway wall.
Across the last stretch of Heath, again, aiming for the amber blobs of light in the black sky before the heavens opened, but no visitor now.
Hubert and Moira were home before me, slumped in front of an Ava Gardner film on the telly. Branches bashed against the sills, and they’d lit the fire for warmth. Moira looked up at me as I joined them, her nose crimson – sleeping in the office, she’d declared more than once, was killing her health – the look sizzling into a glare, despite the new pack of B&H I tossed into her lap.
“What is this?” I asked, heavily dropping into an armchair.
“‘One Touch of Venus’,” Hubert snapped, pointedly turning up the volume. I had nothing to throw into his lap, except myself, and I think he was running out of patience of that ever happening. He waved at Moira’s smoke drifting across the room with a half-made fist. Moira honked into a tissue, extravagantly, and threw it, balled, in my direction, the first of many.
Dora wasn’t happy with me lately, either. Now that we were living under the same roof, Hubert didn’t need my contacting his mother as an excuse to see me any more, not that I’m certain he was ever wholly convinced I wasn’t a charlatan. I had enough dead people who I was being paid to chat with not to pursue others, like Dora, for my own company. I could sense her, on the other side, appealing for my attention, but I was mostly able to tune it out.
A glance at my watch, then “I got a Merlot and an Amarone,” I said. “The guy in the shop recommended them.”
One last long look at Ava, in her toga, then I was out of my chair.
“How did you discover your gift?” one of them asked, later, in the windowless dark. We’d moved onto port, and I felt like my head was caving in on itself.
My grandma had died. I’d cannoned into the wrong funeral, thinking I was late. The door clicked into its frame behind me, heads had turned. Someone handed me a floppy prayer-book which I used to fan myself while I scanned the congregation for any faces I knew, and exchanged nods with tight-mouthed men I’d never seen before.
I realised my error as soon as my ears attuned to the eulogy. “You don’t meet a man like Saul Rubinstein twice in this lifetime,” the speaker was saying. Saul Rubinstein? I hadn’t met him once.
Eyes glued to the floor, I backed out of the hall as invisibly as I could, of course dropping the prayer-book as I tried returning it.
Outside, the sun was flashing off the gravestones, still wet from earlier in the day. I slid a pair of cheap sunglasses up my nose and only then spotted a board with the timetable of today’s services.
“At least it’s stopped raining,” said a voice behind me.
A little old fella with a bad hairpiece looked me up and down. I couldn’t afford a suit at the time. He looked as though he was going to say something, but then changed his expression and said “I’m sorry about your grandmother. She had very nice posture.”
I nodded, hoping that someone else was in charge of the eulogy.
Cars began to pull up with her mourners. I recognised other residents from my grandmother’s block who took turns to peer through the window and shuffle back, shaking their head, no, not yet.
“Did you know her from Crescent Gardens?” I asked.
“No,” said the man. “I just met her a few minutes ago…”
My story trailed off. I felt I might throw up any second. As if reading my mind, a hand started brushing my hair away from my face in the darkness. I tried to make out who was in there with me, couldn’t remember who’d spoken, man, woman, when the fingers in my hair suddenly grabbed it, yanked on it, hard, pulling my head back, and a wet mouth slapped itself onto mine from above. Our front teeth clashed. A cold, slick tongue muscled its way in over mine.
I moaned, feebly, against their stale breath in my throat, my lungs. Then decided not to fight.
Nick Black’s stories have been published in various literary magazines including Jellyfish Review, (b)OINKzine, the Lonely Crowd, Spelk, Open Pen, Severine, Funhouse and Litro. They have also been listed for the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize. He blogs and tweets.