by ANDRÉ LE ROUX
he clock touched eleven on a Thursday evening, and Robert Whiting sat in his lounge fingering the studs on his leather couch. He stared at the pine wood floor, gleaming golden from the down lighters, at a blackened banana and two green pears in a wooden bowl on a squat glass coffee table, and at the cobalt blue London skyline, above which his apartment soared, white and yellow lights blinking in far-off offices in imposing buildings.
He did not really see a thing but the world behind his eyes, and he marveled at how he could reduce every imaginable thing to its value in pounds and pennies, squeeze every drop of meaning and innuendo from a million-figure spreadsheet, but couldn’t understand the things within him – the incessant, inexplicable dullness.
He got up and crossed the space to his kitchen, resplendent in dark granite, cherry veneer and polished stainless steel. He walked with the easy stride of his thirty-something muscular frame, opened a cupboard and poured a rich earthy Islay into a tumbler.
And then he stood there, until well after midnight, with the bottle by his left hand and the tumbler by his right, staring absently at the night lights. Except for the heaters hidden in the walls, ticking gently as they switched on and off, it was dead quiet.
He took a quick shower in his glass-paneled shower stall in a cavernous glass-paneled bathroom, brushed his teeth and went to bed, staring wide-eyed at the dark high ceiling, feeling sensuous soft cotton sheets cold and fresh against his skin until, finally, sleep came.
Once, Robert Whiting was asked to write a day-in-the-life-of segment for a blog recruiting for investment banks. The segment was introduced as follows:
‘As part of the day-in-the-life-of series, here’s a typical day in the life of a vice president at Marks Brown that works in London with retail and consumer companies.’
To which Robert Whiting added:
‘05h30. I wake up and check my Blackberry. I have clients in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Business never sleeps. I respond to some messages and go back to bed.
‘07h00. I get up and check my Blackberry again. I go back to bed.
‘08h00. I get up, get dressed and leave my apartment while checking for and returning messages. I either walk or take the car to work, depending on how much of a hurry I’m in. When I walk, I stop at this small café and have a quick coffee and an orange juice.
‘Just before 09h00. I arrive at the office, check in with my PA, respond to emails and schedule my day.
‘09h30. First meeting. This one’s with a retail company we’re selling. The deal’s been in the works for months. The whole deal-team is here – me, my analyst, my associate, my MD, one of our lawyers, the client’s CEO, CFO and their lawyers. I’m the point man on this one.
‘10h30. I eat a banana, call in my analyst and associate and give them guidance on a presentation we have to do. They have questions about discounted cash flow and the refining of assumptions. I help them.
‘11h00. Second meeting of the day. This one’s internal. It’s about a potential sell-side deal. My MD takes the lead and my analyst and associate also sit in. We are putting a presentation together to get the business. My MD wants the contract badly. It’s a big one.
‘12h00. Back in my office. I draft a to-do list for my analyst and associate on the new deal. I instruct them on the format of the presentation – what to focus on, what the analyst needs to do, how the research must be presented, and give them timelines and deadlines.
‘12h30. I take the lift to the foyer, grab a sandwich and bottled water and take a few minutes to eat in the park across the road. I make some calls.
‘13h00. Back at the office. I check on my analyst and associate working on the presentation.
‘13h30. One of the MDs is on her way to give a pitch on a deal I’m working on. For the next hour or so, she’s in a car. Typically, on their way to a pitch they’ll bombard you with last-minute fact-checks and the like. The associate and I tag-team on the incoming requests.
‘14h30. Another MD calls me. There’s a new deal on the cards. He thinks I’m the right guy for the job. I need to step in and handle it. He forwards me the investor presentation and credit memo, which must be done in the next forty-eight hours.
‘15h00. I start working on this new deal, making sure that I understand the client’s business and what the client is looking for. While I do this I also respond to emails concerning other deals.
‘16h00. I head over to our financial sponsor group. I give them a due diligence list, guidance on valuation materials and an internal credit package that we need to create.
‘16h30. Some of the MDs are starting to go home and they send their last e-mails of the day – our to-do lists for the evening. I sit with my analyst and associate. They’re having difficulty with an analysis. We work through the model.
‘18h00. I go to the gym. I take a few calls while I’m working out.
‘19h00. Back at the office. I check for messages and respond to emails. I order dinner with another VP.
‘19h45. I take a call from a client in Los Angeles. We’ve been discussing ideas for an acquisition. We set up a meeting for next week. I call my analyst and associate in.
‘20h15. I meet with my analyst and associate. We discuss the new acquisition and I instruct them to get started on the presentation.
‘21h00. I check in on my buy-side team. They’re still struggling on the model, so we work on it for a while. I ask them to send me a draft of what they’ve come up with by the end of the evening.
‘21h30. I check in on my sell-side team. They’re doing fine. I ask them to send me a draft of what they have by the end of the evening.
‘21h45. I walk home.
‘22h00. I’m home. I got a few e-mails that I respond to and I make a call to another client in the US.
‘22h45. My sell-side team sends me a draft that I review. I tell them that it’s fine and ask them to circulate it to all the players.
‘23h00. I relax a bit.
‘00h30. I go to bed.
‘02h00. I get a message and a draft from my buy-side team. It doesn’t look good. I will deal with it in the morning.’
It was three o’clock in the morning when the old man unlocked the door to the foyer of the apartment building where he lived and stepped into the cold biting air of a wintry London.
He had a face like bunched up leather and long gray hair, smoothed flat over his scalp and straggly over his shoulders, a thick grizzled beard, and adjoining mustache. The skin around his eyes wrinkled tensely, and his cheeks glowed red from the brandy he’d had before he left. He wore a black trench coat, and the index and middle fingers on his left hand were missing.
A thin talcum of snow covered the streets.
The old man was used to the hour and the cold. It was the best time for his work. He carried with him an object that looked like a cordless vacuum cleaner and that was, mostly, a cordless vacuum cleaner. He called it a Coaxer. It did everything a vacuum cleaner did, but it also emitted a warm white light from the vacuum nozzle. The storage compartment was covered with a salt-encrusted cotton bag. He kept the Coaxer underneath his coat, hanging from a clip on his belt.
He rubbed his hands briskly, stowed them in the deep warm pockets of his coat, watched his breath evaporate as he inhaled and exhaled meditatively, and started toward Tower Bridge where, for reasons he did not understand, he found most often what he looked for. Ice cracked crisply underfoot. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
The old man had been in this business all his life. As had been his forebears all the way back to the long forgotten past. He knew how to find what he was looking for, even though he’d never known anyone, except for his father, who could also see.
The full moon hung low and yellow. The streets were overly bright. From time to time, as he walked, the old man closed his eyes to see better, inhaled deeply, looking for a scent.
Sometimes at night, he ran into bobbies or youngsters up to no good. The bobbies usually thought he was a lost, senile old man, and offered to take him home. He’d laugh and tell them he had trouble sleeping, and that it helped to go for a walk. The youngsters often harried him, pushed him around. Sometimes they’d think he was homeless. If they asked him what an old man was doing in the streets that time of night, he told them he was looking for lost souls. And they’d laugh him off as a freak, avoid him like the plague – which was exactly what he wanted.
First, came the smell of the Thames, sweet and earthy. Then, through the buildings ahead of him, he caught glimpses of the two towers and the suspended walkways of the bridge. The air smelled moist and heavy here. Soon, the old man reached the banks of the river, where the water lapped black and lazy.
He felt vulnerable in this breathless space, checked for the flick knife in his left trouser pocket, and put it in his left coat pocket where his hand could rest on it comfortingly. The old man had never used the knife but knew he would if pressed to. He stood motionless for a long time, his eyes closed and watching, breathing deeply.
Then he turned to his left, strolled along the banks until he was close to the bridge, and turned into a narrow residential road where the world slept deeply. The old man knew where he was heading now. He crossed a slippery cobbled road and stopped near a lamp post next to a green garden hedge where he kneeled.
‘There you are, lonely soul,’ said the old man, ‘Come along.’
There’s always somewhere to go you’ve never been before, thought Robert Whiting, and one can always sink a little bit lower.
He sat on a wingback chair in the viewing gallery of the Paramount Bar, the city at dusk obscured by a dirty opaque mist. He was accompanied by a bottle of Pol Roger, tucked into a sweaty stainless steel wine cooler, and a young intern that had started at the firm a few days ago, fresh from a college somewhere in the US – Estelle, call me Stella.
It was no great achievement for a VP to get a date with an intern – but she was beautiful and drew a great deal of attention at work, and he wanted the bragging rights of being the first to bed her. Hence the Paramount, with all its opulence and its promise of wealth and perpetual contentment.
She sat next to him, radiant and delighted, and raised her glass with a tacky, ‘Cheers to London,’ and a lovely, effortless smile.
‘To London,’ he echoed, and stroked the back of her hand where it rested ivory and smooth on the black marble-top between them. ‘You know you’re beautiful, right?’
Her cheeks flushed. ‘It’s stunning here,’ she said, staring into the smoky distance; then turned to him with wide admiring eyes. ‘Thanks for bringing me.’
Deep within him something tender and voiceless winced. He didn’t notice. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked.
‘Sure… very, actually – it’s been a long day.’
He flagged an idle waiter that’d been hovering in his peripheral vision for some time, took her firmly by the hand, and led the way inside to a table in a private room, decked out with crystal and silver and a massive bouquet of white flowers – everything as he’d arranged.
As he pulled out her chair and she sat down gingerly, he admired her fawn silk dress, soft and flowing over her lithe figure, and her sculpted neck – and he regretted, just for an instant, that he’d forgotten how to love.
They’d snorted some Roflcopter in a booth in a club where everyone could see them but no one cared. She was terrified and convinced she’d become addicted. He swayed her. ‘It’s not the hard stuff,’ he said, ‘It takes the edge off, helps you relax.’
Now, standing under a blue refracted laser on the dance floor, her body pressed tight to his, he felt like a sea creature looking at the sun as it glimmered through water – and he moved to the rhythm because he had to, because one can’t resist the ocean.
She danced with her hands above her head and with a carefree smile, her pupils large like a cat’s, her body hungry and inviting. All around them, people moved on their own terms, each in their own special way – some had conspicuously lost their shirts; others, eyes shut, were lost in inner worlds where all their desires seemed on the cusp of fulfillment. Lasers and lights floated about them, illuminating wood and steel and glass and flesh in broad sweeping bands of light or tight blinding bright spots.
He pulled on her wrist and they moved to a black leather couch next to an iridescent pink Perspex pillar, where he lit a cigarette and stuck his feet on a table. She leaned into him, pressed a small firm breast against his ribcage, inclined her head to his shoulder and ran her fingers through his hair, gently along the scalp, which made him hard. He pulled her face toward his and she kissed him. Then this girl from a southern American state, that spoke in admiration of the industry of her parents and of the church she attended twice a week and of the Republican party as the moral vanguard of her nation, slid a hand between his legs and rubbed his groin.
More drinks. They snorted again. Every little thing as he’d planned. They danced, had more drinks, danced some more.
It was not really a dream. It was, rather, a memory recollected in a dream. And for some reason, the memory returned to Robert Whiting, once or twice a week, as he slept, and then his imagination added some details, not always the same ones.
The memory itself was simple. Shortly after he’d become a VP, about three years ago, he moved from a dingy one-bedroom flat in Soho into the furnished new executive apartment he now lived in – occupying one-half of the twenty-second floor of a dashing modern building, captured in shimmering glass and with its own health club and swimming pool on the top floor.
On his arrival, he stood in the kitchen and considered the vast expanse of the open plan. He was baffled. He waited for something. A feeling he’d expected.
He’d expected to feel proud. He’d expected the following inner dialogue: ‘You’ve made it, Robert. Well done! It was all worth it. From here it’s only up and further up to the very pinnacle of your dreams. Good job!’
None of that. It didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. He could not bring himself to believe that anything really mattered.
And then he thought he should call someone and boast, invite them over for a drink. But he had no one to call except some colleagues at work, and he didn’t want to appear self-congratulatory.
It was then, thinking of these things, that he noticed a man descending in a bosun’s chair outside his double-glazed windows overlooking a late summer afternoon. The man was a window cleaner, dangling from thick black ropes and dressed in a faded blue overall. If the man saw him, he showed no sign of it. With chamois and scrim, he worked briskly and competently.
And in the way we sometimes know things about people, from a subtle facial expression, from something hidden in crisscrossing crows’ feet, from the way they purse their lips or from a kind of light in their eyes, Robert Whiting knew that this man, in essence, was content.
He envied the man.
This is the memory.
Then, in sleep, his imagination took over and colored the memory, and he’d dream of the man going to a pub and having a drink and a good laugh with friends, or of the man meeting his daughter at a café over lunch to discuss how varsity was going, or of the man at home with his wife, watching television as she falls asleep in his arms.
It was always the same man, the window cleaner, in various dreamt up incarnations. But some things remained unchanged – the man always loved and was loved in return, the man was happy, and he was nothing like Robert Whiting.
This particular night, he again remembered and dreamt of the man, and then he startled awake, suddenly wide-eyed and alert, to find the girl in bed with him.
And this made him furious. He never let them spend the night. It made him feel weak. He felt betrayed, the sanctity of bed and home violated by an act of unintended intimacy. He shook her by the shoulders, woke her abruptly, and bundled her out of bed, glowering at her as she stood there confused and naked, a look of distress and disgust seeping into her face as she awoke to contempt in his eyes.
‘What is wrong with you?’ hissed beautiful Stella, already tearing up.
‘Get the fuck out of my house,’ he said flatly. ‘We’re done. I don’t spend the night with sluts that drink too much and get themselves high.’
She stared at him, blinking naively, finding nothing but a wall of malice and insolence in the man she’d spend the evening with.
‘Go!’ he said, ‘I can’t sleep with you here. We’re done.’
‘Why are you doing this?’ pleaded Stella.
And this is what he said, and had said many times before, with the same cruel, deliberate intonation:
‘You know my Bentley, right?’
The edge in his voice prompted her into action. It scared her. She took a step back, snatched up a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around her, clasping her arms warily over her chest as a small shy child might do.
‘When I bought that Bentley, I didn’t do it because I wanted a Bentley,’ he said, ‘I wanted a BMW. I did it so other people would know I have a Bentley.’
She was weeping and her eyes darted around frantically, looking for her clothes. She dressed hurriedly, with her back to him, not bothering with underwear or socks, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed.
‘You’re a Bentley,’ said Robert Whiting. ‘I hate fucking Bentleys. It’s a real wannabe car. Unlike the Bentley, though, I don’t need to keep you around for people to know I’ve had you.’
He watched her for a while as she scurried around. If she had looked at him closely, she would have seen him amused.
When she turned to leave, he walked with her to the front door, and didn’t get dressed. He leaned over her to unlock the door, grabbed her by the waist and pulled her toward him, rubbed her buttocks against his genitals and laughed as she yelped and shuddered. ‘Don’t you worry,’ he breathed in her ear, ‘I’ll tell the guys at work you’re a fine piece of ass,’ slapping her on the buttocks as he shoved her into the hallway and slammed the door shut.
Devils’ Market had a long history. It’d been operating in England since Leadenhall Market was the center of Roman London, where it opened as a general trading post. It had, through many generations, dealt in poultry, operated as a butchery, a jeweler, and a tobacconist. But these were only the secondary businesses or, as the family later called it, the cash-flow side – everyone, after all, had to keep books and pay taxes.
The true business of Devils’ Market was, in fact, something wholly different, and had sustained the family since the days of the early Pharaohs, when they first plied their trade, and from where they can plot their ancestry to a single man. This man was a priest, had useful connections in the netherworld, a keen understanding of the human soul, and an excellent head for business.
Until the early twentieth century, Devils’ Market bought souls and then sold these to a handful of rather unpleasant characters that had been around since just about the first time someone had the following interesting thought: Is there more to this world than the stuff I can see? It appeared as though these characters had involved themselves in some sort of a disagreement, the resolution of which was somehow dependent on the possession of souls. But the family never concerned themselves with the politics of this brawl, acted non-partisan and always beyond reproach, and sold only to the highest bidder – who paid in gold.
It was a tricky business. Churches objected. A great deal of tact was called for. The unpleasant ones had many expectations. They had quotas to fill and bosses to answer to. They had many sources other than the family, but when times were tough they hounded their suppliers. They had unpleasant tempers. And at the time, people were sentimental and rather attached to their souls, and not often inclined to sell no matter how generous the offer.
Then things changed. Some of the really clever unpleasant ones came up with interesting new ideas, and whispered these in the ears of intellectuals and artists who, in turn, had great success in diminishing the market value of souls – people that did not believe in souls were more likely to sell cheaply or, even better, neglect their souls and simply leave it somewhere.
In this proliferation of availability, the family decided to abandon their position of agency, and to rather collect abandoned or lost souls and sell these to the public directly. The family was tired of the unpleasant ones, of the curses they inflicted, of their murderous tendencies, and of all the times they had to rebuild Devils’ Market after a client had lost its temper.
In this day and age, Devils’ Market traded as Trish’s Trinkets, and on this particular day, at half-past one in the afternoon, the old man awoke from a slumber behind the cash register of Trish’s Trinkets as the electronic doorbell chimed and Robert Whiting, in an immaculate navy suit, strode toward him.
It was an odd day for Robert Whiting – his body awash with the residue of the previous evening’s excesses. He was an hour late for work. When he arrived, the Old Boys’ Club swarmed into his office, asking about his date with the intern. He told them she was sweet and smooth, thrusting his hips comically. They laughed, patted him on the back. ‘You’re a rock star, Robert,’ one of them said. They told him she didn’t come in for work – he must have exhausted her – and sniggered at this joke. He searched his conscience for a hint of pity or guilt and found none. He got what he wanted. She should have known better.
At eleven, the MDs called him in. All of them. They sat together in a boardroom, like a single collective consciousness, buzzing like a swarm of bees, and succeeded in conveying more or less the following, even though he couldn’t tell who exactly said it: You’ve been here fourteen years, Robert; and a damn good fourteen years it’s been! You’re an asset, and we look after our assets. Then they broke into smiles or, in some cases, wan jealous grins that looked like dogs baring their teeth, and asked him to join them as the firm’s newest MD. He joined in their laughter and shook hands all round, thanking them, accepting hugs where appropriate, a trained part of him warning that he must be delighted or at least appear delighted. ‘You’re a rock star, Robert!’ said one of the MDs, who’d been his VP years ago when he started as an analyst, ‘You really deserve this!’
From there they went to the Lamb Tavern at Leadenhall, just down the road, and had drinks and celebrations in his honor. ‘Let the VPs worry about the work!’ they joked, and had some beers and a great many shots.
At about one in the afternoon, they started to leave. Most of them went home, to e-mail instructions and settle down for the day.
When they were gone, Robert Whiting stayed at the bar, his hands spread open on the counter, his shoulders hunched, staring pointedly into nothingness. A barman came over to tell him that Bill had settled the bill (enjoying the pun), but that he’s welcome to have another drink.
He left. He walked down Gracechurch Street toward Whittington, where he’d parked his car. He felt no joy – only a blank dullness that ran deeper than boredom. Perched high and low at entrances and exits, silver gargoyles frowned at him.
A couple of hundred yards into his walk, he stopped mid-step, squatted down on his haunches, and held his hands flat over his face – he was suddenly out of breath and felt exhausted. He searched for his mobile in its usual right inside jacket pocket, having decided to call a cab, and realized he must have left it at the office.
When he looked up, he faced the ludicrous leprechaun green doors of Trish’s Trinkets. Christ! he thought, as he got up and pushed the door open, what a color!
The old man did not rise to the chiming bell. Except for lifting his head and opening his eyes, he hardly moved at all.
‘I need to call a cab,’ said Robert Whiting, getting straight to the point, ‘I left my mobile at work. I’ll pay for the call.’
The old man considered him languidly, pursed his lips so tightly they disappeared altogether. He leaned slightly to his left, fumbled about, and slammed a phone on the counter – an old rotary dialer. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘you can keep your twenty pence, though.’ Then he grew eerily motionless, the muscles in his face slackening. His eyes seemed to dim but remained fixed on Robert Whiting – as though he might fall asleep without a change in posture.
Robert Whiting inspected the old man as he made his call.
When he hung the receiver up, the old man’s eyes cleared. He noticed the missing fingers. ‘What happened to the fingers?’ he asked, deliberately tactless.
The old man chuckled. ‘Black dog took them,’ he said, ‘A bitch.’
‘Why are you here?’ asked the old man.
‘To make a phone call,’ said Robert Whiting, ‘I called a cab a minute ago, remember?’
The chuckle came with more vigor this time. There was a little bit of a wheeze in it. ‘Of course I remember the fucking phone call, Bob. What I want to know is why you had to call from here. There're a hundred places you could have called from.’ The old man rubbed his nose vigorously, looked at Robert Whiting with a challenge in his eyes.
‘Listen here,’ said Robert Whiting, ‘if it’s about money, and maybe you can’t remember but I offered to pay…’ he slipped his wallet open and slapped a ten-pound note on the counter, ‘… Here, take it.’ He felt the first weak pulse of a headache in the back of his skull – the type that gains strength as it plows its way to the frontal lobes right behind the eyes.
‘You’re one empty motherfucker,’ said the old man, flatly, as though that is exactly what one ordinarily say in situations like that.
The air conditioning flirted with the ten-pound note on the counter, lifted it half an inch and dropped it listlessly. Robert Whiting balled a fist with his right hand, working an impulse to his lips (which would have started, ‘Listen here, old fart…’), then surprised himself by saying, ‘What do you mean?’ He said it meekly, which immediately pissed him off.
‘You’re empty,’ said the old man, who hadn’t moved at all, ‘You’re an empty shell of a man.’ He grinned, displaying a horrible set of crooked black and brown teeth, and stood up. ‘You didn’t stumble in here by chance, Bob. You were drawn here.’ Surprisingly, the old man rose a solid six foot two, a full head taller than Robert Whiting. He leaned forward, and now he seemed strong and vital, his shoulders and the straight line of his back suggesting wiry muscle under his coat; the decrepit, half-asleep old man suddenly gone. ‘And you’ve got one hell of an attitude,’ he said, ‘for a nothing, for an empty shell, for a man without a soul – if such a thing can be a man at all.’
Still the headache – making its way toward his left temple, gnawing on the side of his head. He thought of planting a solid right on the old man’s mushroom of a nose. Instead, he just stood there, speechless and feeling like an imbecile, trying desperately to suppress the feeling that the old man had a point – some kind of a point…
‘What do you mean?’ repeated Robert Whiting, and now the old man bent over laughing, spittle flying from his mouth.
‘What’s your name, Bob?’ asked the old man.
‘Robert Whiting,’ he replied.
‘–Robert,’ he insisted.
‘What I mean, Bob,’ said the old man, raising his eyebrows sardonically, ‘is that you don’t have a soul. You lost it somewhere. Maybe a long time ago. Don’t know whether your daddy fucked it out of you, whether you drank it away or whether you just forgot it at work one day. What I do know is that you don’t have a soul – you’re all hardware, have some good software, but absolutely no jazz.’
‘That’s bullshit,’ said Robert Whiting, ‘There’s no such thing as souls, and there’s no such thing as Father Christmas.’
And again the old man doubled over, wheezing dangerously this time, anchoring his large gnarled hands on his knees for support. ‘Well now, doesn’t that make you special, Bob!’ he choked, positively out of breath but still grinning. ‘What a true original you are! You’re like a Levi jean – a million sold, all of ‘em original.’
By now, the headache had settled right behind his left eye, cast anchor and revved up its onboard motor. His mind raced, seeking a contemptuous retort, but nothing made its way to his lips, which felt dry and stitched together.
The old man clasped a hand over his shoulder, brotherly almost, took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself, blinking tears from his eyes, then said, ‘I’m sorry, Bob. Been doing this way too long. Made me cynical, you know?’
Robert Whiting pulled away from the hand. The old man disgusted him. He found some fire in his gut, which he finally converted into, ‘I should break your fucking nose.’
The old man sighed. ‘Fine, Bob, it’s been broken before.’ He leaned back against the counter, and gave Robert Whiting a level look that seemed to say, ‘Anything else, then?’
Robert Whiting turned to leave. Then he turned back and said something he had no inkling he wanted to say, as though from some intelligence within him he was hardly aware of. ‘You really think I have no soul?’ he asked.
‘I know it,’ said the old man, ‘I can see,’ and he pointed to a spot somewhere near Robert Whiting’s navel, ‘It’s empty.’
‘And you said I were drawn here?’
‘Yup, by them.’
‘Them. The souls. The ones I collect. You’re drawn to them because you’re empty. They’re drawn to you because they’re meant to fill the gap. Like a magnet. Nature abhors a vacuum, and all that shit.’ The old man lifted his arms loftily, like a showman. ‘No need for marketing here,’ he boasted, ‘I just sit and wait. It’s a beautiful business. Sometimes I even sell trinkets.’
Robert Whiting bobbed back and forth on his heels, frowning. ‘How much?’ he asked.
‘For the figurine kittens with the smirks and blue eyes, fifty for the set. And I’ll wrap it.’
‘You know what I mean,’ said Robert Whiting, now squinting from the pain in his head. ‘How much for a soul?’
The old man smiled wickedly, rose again to his full height. ‘For a cunt like you, Robert Whiting, a hard-ass, sadistic man-whore like you, make it a grand.’ His eyes glinted with relish.
‘If you insist, Bob, but I’m old,’ winked the old man. He slipped his thumbs between his belt and trousers. ‘Your cab’s here.’
Robert Whiting did not hear the bell chime. But when he looked over his shoulder the driver stood there – his eyes wide from whatever part of the conversation he’d been privy to, cap in hand.
‘Wait outside,’ said Robert Whiting, ‘Run the meter. I’ll be out soon.’
He waited for the door to clip shut, turned to the old man and continued saying things he could have sworn he had no intention of saying. ‘OK,’ he said.
‘Good job, Bob.’
Laughter. ‘None, Bob. Too many variables,’ with his best rotten smile.
‘Whose soul will I get?’
The old man shrugged. ‘No fucking idea. They all look the same to me, and they all seem to do more or less the same thing.’
The old man produced a small black container, the size of a matchbox, out of a drawer. It was wrapped in a fine silky fabric and pulled shut tightly by a drawstring. ‘Now listen, Bob,’ he said, ‘if you open this before you get home, it will vanish like a whisper. No doubt an asshole like you sleeps alone at night – keep it that way, tonight at least.’ He handed the package over. ‘When you go to bed tonight, you take it out of that little bag, slip the box open, leave it somewhere close to you. That’s all. It’ll find its way in your sleep. They’re strong when the mind is weak.’
Robert Whiting weighed the package in his left hand. It felt heavy and cold. It occurred to him that it must be dark and rainy outside, with an icy wind that feels as though it can cut through steel. He saw a beam of golden sunlight striking motes of dust between him and the old man. ‘I don’t think I should,’ he said.
‘Lost your nerve?’ asked the old man.
‘Take it back.’
Robert Whiting had enough. He fumbled the cash out of his wallet and dropped it on the floor, stuck the package into his jacket pocket where his mobile should have been, and stumbled to the door with a hand to his left temple. ‘Fuck you,’ he said in parting, throwing the door wide open.
Robert Whiting did exactly as the old man had said, laughing at his own foolishness. He slipped the box open (it was empty but had an odd peaty smell), put it on the dresser next to his bed, laid his head on a pillow and decided to get his money back in the morning. The way things worked out, he never got around to that.
He expected it would take him a while to fall asleep. It usually did. He gazed at his apartment and the great sweep of its open plan, laid bare by glass paneled partitions that demarcated corridors and inner walls. He could see all the way to his kitchen, more than a hundred feet away, and thought of how one’s outer world can become a mirror to the inner. The apartment returned his gaze; cold, crystalline, indifferent, a place hardly lived in, horribly conscious of its own chic whites, textured grays and icy dull blues. The glass partitions gave an illusion of space but threw up walls instead. The place had a cleanliness that suggested fear of disease.
The bed grew warm, and he closed his eyes hoping to drift toward an empty, dreamless, peaceful sleep. And he drifted… and drifted…
He knew exactly when it happened. He felt it move inside him. It woke him, and it was weeping.
He couldn’t tell what it was thinking, wasn’t even sure it thought, but he knew that it was angry. Its anger pulsed within him in searing hot waves, making his heart palpitate and his brow sweat. It hated him. And its hatred sunk to the pit of his stomach as a heavy dull mass.
It went to the kitchen and took him with it. It opened a drawer, pulled out a carving knife and slashed his outer left arm open between the wrist and elbow. It didn’t hurt, but the blood spewing from the wound was staggering in its abundant vivid redness.
Then it sat him down on a bar stool and turned the arm so he could see his life draining away, flowing hotly and quickly from his body. Robert Whiting sat there, numbly, feeling strangely distant from his self, as though he was watching a character in a television show in which he had little interest, but only watched because it was late and he was too tired to do anything else.
It crossed his mind that he was dreaming – must be dreaming. But he knew he wasn’t, and that the blood now pooling on his kitchen counter and dripping onto the floor would still be there in the morning. He knew he was in trouble, and his mind tried to bridge the gap to his body, but something stronger stood in that gap, and wouldn’t yield.
The thing in the gap felt familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place it. He knew for sure that it wished for nothing more than to rid the world of Robert Whiting. He did not know why. He tried to reach it but it turned away and… yes… it laughed, shrilly and ecstatically.
The world turned black and he lost consciousness.
Not often had the old man such luck. The streets of Barnes were not a regular haunt. In nice neighborhoods like these people call the police at a whim, and a strange old man strolling around in a trench coat at four in the morning would suffice. But it’d been three days since he had any success, and he’d decided to try something different. It paid off.
He found her near Queens Ride. Lovely young thing – gravely underdressed in temperatures near freezing. She sat outside in an entrance to an apartment building. Her knees were drawn to her chest and she’d wrapped her arms around her, holding her shoulders and rocking back and forth. She shivered in the cold and wept quietly and bitterly – as though something irreparable had broken deep within. Her eyes were open but she was looking inward.
The old man had witnessed a shedding once before, and that was a long time ago. His father had taught him to keep an eye out, particularly in the mornings just before dawn, when it’s easy for people to feel alone and abandoned in a dark, quiet world.
The old man’s father had told him that to him it seemed to spill and sparkle like liquid diamonds. To the old man’s grandfather, it had looked like a swirl of scarlet snow. It seemed different to each of them. To the old man, it looked like an exoskeleton that slipped down slowly, then pooled like water. His father had called it a spill, and his grandfather a drift. The old man thought of it as a shedding. But whatever they called it, it had always paid the bills.
She cursed intermittently while she wept. She bit the insides of her cheeks, tugged at her beautiful long hair, and pressed bloody half-moons into the palms of her hands as she clasped them shut. At that moment, she hated herself and hated the world. Most of all, she hated the man that had made her feel that way. And she was shedding.
When she stood up and walked away, her tears had drawn deep lines on her cheeks and in the corners of her mouth, and her eyes were dark and empty.
The old man waited for her to turn the corner, stroking the Coaxer on its clip on his belt.
He dreamt he was surfing at Cornwall, as he’d done in his early twenties. He felt vital and strong, invigorated by the smell and swell of kelp and sea – clean and alive in his nostrils. He waited for a wave to crest, but the ocean fell flat and became motionless like the surface of a lake. Searching for the coastline, he paddled around in circles. There was none. The flat surface of the water mirrored the sky, and he could not see where the one began and the other ended. He felt like a speck of dust on a blank blue canvas.
Then he dreamt he was a tree in a desert landscape. The soil was iron red and the sky deep blue and cloudless. He was stuck between these two seams of flawless color. The tree was stark and skeletal, tall and strong but barren – burned black by a thousand heartless suns.
When he woke, he found himself stuck to the kitchen floor in his own coagulated blood. He had a headache, and his arm throbbed painfully. He surprised himself by saying, ‘What a bloody mess,’ and laughing.
‘I’m not him,’ said a cracked smoker’s voice over the phone, ‘I’m his son. He’s not in today.’
Robert Whiting was lying in bed, with his mobile phone to his right ear and his left arm wrapped in an Egyptian cotton hand towel. To his great surprise, a Google search had produced the phone number of Trish’s Trinkets in Leadenhall. Before he made the call, he ordered a pizza and large Coke from a bistro downstairs. He was starving.
‘Well,’ said Robert Whiting, ‘I’m in a bit of a fix, you see… Eh… I made a purchase there yesterday… not a trinket… and I’m pretty damn sure it tried to kill me last night.’ Dead silence and a dull low hiss from the line. He could hear Smoker’s Voice inhaling sharply, and a sound like rummaging through a drawer. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello. Yes. Sorry. A bit of a shock. Sorry. Never heard of such a thing. Excuse me a minute, will you?’ The phone thudded down. Smoker’s Voice blew his nose, and then it sounded as though he was lighting a cigarette. A minute passed, two, ‘Hello,’ returned Smoker’s Voice.
‘You must come in,’ said Smoker’s Voice, ‘But tomorrow, when he’s in. He can take it out. I wouldn’t try myself, but he’s done it before. I don’t really have the knack.’
‘What if it tries again?’
‘It won’t,’ said Smoker’s Voice, ‘As long as you don’t sleep – Oh yeah, don’t sleep.’
‘Why the fuck shouldn’t I sleep?’ asked Robert Whiting, ‘Do you have any idea how shit I feel? I need to sleep–’
‘–Don’t sleep,’ interjected Smoker’s Voice, with an edge of urgency in his voice. He started coughing. Phlegm rumbled in his chest. ‘They take over in sleep. They’re strong then.’
Robert Whiting mulled this over. ‘You know, this is quite a fucked up situation,’ he snapped. ‘Where is he? I can go to his home. He can keep the money, but he must take it.’
‘Tomorrow,’ insisted Smoker’s Voice, ‘I don’t know where he is, but he’ll be back tomorrow.’
Robert Whiting bit his lower lip until he drew blood. He ended the call with a flick of a finger and stared at his feet, which seemed very pale to him. ‘Fuck,’ he said.
He wolfed the pizza down and instantly felt better. He swallowed some aspirin with half a tumbler of whiskey. It was difficult getting dressed with the use of one arm only, but he managed.
He took the elevator down to the basement garage and drove to his GP. He told her he’d had a drink too many the previous evening, had sense enough not to drive, but not enough to call a cab and avoid being robbed on his way home. He could see that she didn’t believe him. But she didn’t probe his version, checked that the wound was clean, stitched it up and bound it, injected him with an antibiotic and prescribed some painkillers, and arranged for a cab to take him home with instructions to get some sleep and not go to work for a day or two.
Back at the apartment, he called the office. No one had missed him. Not even his PA. She’d assumed he’d gone somewhere to pitch a deal. He repeated the robbery story, responded to platitudes, and gave his assurances that he’ll be in the next day. She pretended to care, he pretended to be appreciative, the call ended.
At about three in the afternoon, he settled in front of the television and watched BBC News and CNN alternately, fastidiously avoiding any reference to the financial markets. Politicians pontificated, a school bus crashed, the haves were having and the have nots not. Same old shit.
He went to the kitchen and got a bag of crisps, a bottle of Famous Grouse and the painkillers. He put these items in a wooden fruit bowl and slid-kicked it toward the couch. Returning to the lounge, he slipped his shoes off and used his right hand to pull off his clothes, leaving a messy trail of garments and underwear in his wake. He had a rare opportunity to do absolutely nothing and was determined to make the most of it. He settled back on the couch and propped his left arm on the armrest and his legs on an ottoman. Watching football, he took two painkillers and drank whiskey straight from the bottle. Half an hour later, he took two more. He forgot about the crisps.
Robert Whiting began to feel very serene. The television transmuted into a meaningless fog of green with floating yellows, blues and reds; the singing spectators into a soothing white noise. He closed his eyes. The smarting arm forgotten. He felt as though he was falling inward and then out into the world. It was a lovely buzz.
He awoke to find himself sitting in the clear water of a warm bath, his skin prickling sensuously in the heat. His left arm was submerged, and blood seeped meekly from the dressing. There was a sharp tailor’s scissors in his right hand. He tried to reach his body through the fog of his mind – to move a finger or twist a toe. But the thing within him held him inert.
Then it leapt inside him. It felt as though he was falling. He had a sense of hands pressing on the inside of his ribcage. He couldn’t breathe. It wedged the scissors over his dick and balls and closed it with a perfect smooth movement. Blood burst red and vivid from where his junk had been.
In the moments before he lost consciousness, it seemed to him as though he sunk into a world of crimson, and he heard the giggle of a girl and the cackle of a hag from a single twisted voice.
‘Fuck,’ was Robert Whiting’s very last thought, ‘double fuck fuck.’
André le Roux is a legal adviser at the provincial legislature in Cape Town, South Africa. He debuted in Prick of the Spindle in 2013, which piece was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work appeared in Pif Magazine, Liquid Imagination, and Umbrella Factory.
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