Her voice floated to him over the line, as if just tangible, it had a softness which rippled across its reception, like touch. It was in this he indulged, before comprehending the content of her words.
“Tom, we’ve found – what we think are – remains – yes…”
Her pauses in speech were throaty and urgent, almost pulsing, reminding Tom of the time he had trapped a wild mouse under his thumb and watched the tiny cell of the heart ricocheting against the papery skin. He clasped the same thumb beneath his fingers, like a weapon.
Ah, the cadence of that call on the inversion! He let his tongue brush over his teeth, as if preparing the same subtlety of reply – calculated, necessary. If only, he thought, he was not in the office – the singular cell with the computer chair and name badge on a numbered uniform with read ‘Officer Beet.’ He secretly dreaded the moment where her breath would wane if he did not answer and she would say ‘Officer’ with the singular, stripped-down tone she used for everybody. No, that was not going to happen.
Even the trip of the tongue of the stressed syllables of her name thrilled him – a kind of rush, so to speak. Perhaps it was all those components which made up her identity he adored the most, he mused, the scent she carried with her like a layer over her clothes, the peculiar souvenirs of herself she would leave patterned across her desk – rings, tissues crumpled but apparently clean, pens exhausted and bloodless. Perhaps that was how he truly saw her – like a composure, pulling energy from everything into that one precious system.
Or perhaps he was bored, as Angie had said. Yes, ‘Bored’ had been the very word she had used to describe it as she had leant over the struggling fire, attempting to light the gas. Angie was his wife – a pale unsubstantial woman – those very features which once enchanted him, now irritated him. On living with her he realised that her skin’s supple transparency, her vacant stare even at moments of intensity, had apparently no shocking or harrowing source.
“Perhaps I’m anaemic.” Is all she had said.
She had started saying it more often now, Tom mused passively. But everyone is inclined to repeat themselves once in a while. She certainly had repeated her accusation of his being ‘bored’ being the reason for his attraction to another woman. He hadn’t even meant to tell Angie about Eliza – it was a presence which seemed to unravel, hot and awful and human, one day as they were eating dinner.
They were eating chicken legs in a vague kind of sauce Tom could not remember, because Angie said they looked ‘better like that.’ He remembered saying ‘Thank you’ with that compulsive emptiness of politeness, allowing for customary few minutes of food-scraping silence before telling her about his day. It had been an average day, he told her of a case of a woman biting a man in the hand at the doorway to a pub, he might even had mentioned Eliza… once, perhaps twice. He looked up. Perhaps three times.
His wife’s face had been something striking and set as if transcribed from a mural.
“I knew it.” Was all she said for a long time.
And then an endless reduplication of ‘No, No, No.” Tom tried to ignore it at first, thought she might be having one of her fits again, where if he touched her, she shrunk away from with bared teeth and tousled herself into a feudal position, fingers mulching into the taffeta carpet. He didn’t want that. He stripped the first chicken leg and noticed she had finally quitted. This comforted him, and his voice came easily.
“What was that all about?”
Her lip quivered as she flung watery exclamatives back at him in dashes.
“Eliza! That’s the woman you like, isn’t it?”
Little thought preceded his answer – he was the type only ever to give the minimum amount of dedication to a question. There were much greater things to dedicate oneself to.
“Yes, I like her. And-?”
But even his attempt at a question was broken. Angie’s eyes faltered a little and then her face seemed to dissolve before him, a sudden awful flush of liquid, clawing fingers, the mouth raw red and hanging open. Even her body was animated, giving sporadic little shakes, which even Tom saw as quite remarkable, given that she hardly seemed to move otherwise.
He watched the sobbing mass assemble itself a little. His fingers were grey and greasy, as if symbolic of the only kind of comfort he could offer in his situation – a detriment of something else eaten long ago, perhaps love –
“But I love you.”
And his sequence was almost perfected. He saluted his presence in the conversation with the prepared expression. He fell back smiling into the domesticated, droll, shop-bought bliss of modern ‘love’ – handed it to her like something polished and incredibly dense, and watched the colour expand in her cheeks and then settle again.
“But - ?”
“No,” he said, smiling, even adding the complementary gesture of his hand stretching, albeit non-comitally, towards the goose-flesh fingers of front of him “Of course I like many people. But I love you.”
The repetition had a pleasing ring to it, he thought, like the reverberations of a bell which he imagined dancing through Angie’s eardrums in their tiny crisp-thinness. That had silenced her. She had spoken nothing on the matter since, even if her body resented the fact, sometimes stalling in front of him in a kind of apathy of resentful gestures. Sometimes she would look up from mincing the steak, or unhooking eyes from potatoes, or sewing shirts, and just look at him. Just like that. She stammered like a child over-tired, the putty of love soft and congealed in her lap.
But it was ultimately just a ‘phase’ they were going through. Tom knew that.
The phone filtered it’s version of a ragged intake of breath.
“Would you mind - coming lending a hand - ?”
Eliza entered his mind again, slid into his pulse so it was if he shifted and answered with nothing but the sense of her – his longings upon the complex cordials of her eyes, her hair, the way she laughed as if sweeping together the sounds of travel, knowledge.
“Of course.” The two curt words were enough for the moment.
He slipped from the chain of the receiver and only his long black coat seemed to chide the excitement of his limbs together as he crossed out of the office and towards the car.
Eliza walked out from the thicket not like a fawn but like a flickering image of the foliage itself – endless capsulations of life suddenly extended to him. He took a shallow breath as if to avoid her incense.
“Is everything alright?” He managed.
It was Inspector Eliza Smith who replied with a grave kind of sterility.
“Remains. Think they could be human.”
Tom allowed himself the freedom of accepting the flow of her body and following it as she turned, turned with something youthfully bohemian in her small step, a kind of freedom which defied any restraint of uniform or stickered, metal-plated identity. She was beautiful, Tom thought. And she was evidently worried – he watched the sequins of perspiration silt her brow as she swept through the cast-capes of ash and beech, throwing up the leaves with the front of her shoes. She had not been an Inspector long, and Tom found himself almost consciously savouring the complexity she found in everything – her emotions still raw and dripping. Experience, over time, had somewhat closed over his, like a soiled poultice. Numbness had long-replaced the thick shots of fright when contemplating cases of arson, rape, murder.
She was still surprised by the fabric of the world.
And almost unbeknown to himself – he prayed it was human.
Human, he told himself, meant something. Like her voice purred over the receiver, asking for an ‘Officer’ to accompany her – he knew it was him, he could sense it like a wild dog shrieks at the scent of imminent mastery. Ironic, he thought, whetting his dry lips with his tongue as she started to slow in front of him in her pantomime of authority – human remains. One human dead, whilst two remained, together. He imagined the shock stealing into her face on her realisation, perhaps her dread, and he having to stand and hold her, constitute something in a moment of a profound innocence being taken, taking her to him like a protector. Just the aching necessity of touch – and touching later, in terms of that strained old cog of conversation at dinner – human remains would give him something to talk about. The prospect of even making Angie look up from the porcelain depths of her plate and reply something like “Really?” or “Where?” Perhaps he could even sleep with the pith being slowly unwrapped from his heart –
The words were issued, sharp as the point of her finger.
It was a difficult alcove beneath a shrivelled beech – she had evidently taken much effort to refine her search, and she stood pensively, the very presence of her body seemingly expressing to him her intentions. He noticed that her positioned one knee against the back of the other, an almost statuette gesture, as if anticipating being frozen to stone and daring to retain a fragment of the unique. He liked that, he thought. He almost told her. But his voice vied for something different.
The words bristled with possibility – on the boundary of comment and comfort, confidence and conversation. The tongue trilled over his teeth, not nervous, but somehow eager – the idea that death could allow for their union. It was curiously thrilling, and the wind licked around him, peeling back to the memories of her leaning against the counter in the office kitchen, the weight of her body positioned somehow like an art; fabric moving against her skin as if it had been poured like a liquid, she told of freedom of movement and the country – a chance for change, even as she unhinged the flesh of the apple clean from its core, there was something invested in her movements.
The prospect of human death would obviously upset her – stalling those delicate features, perhaps even her breath. He comforted himself against the cold gnawing curiously at his fingers. He would hold her then.
“Please will you have a look,” She managed, and yet it was a crease of anger which crossed her face rather than shame. “I can’t.”
He slipped to his knees like a ritual and felt the cold, scared salt of the earth crumbling a little beneath him like a necessary incense. His eye, tempted to slip back to her and all she held, eventually managed to focus itself into the incision – a sort of clawed-out cave between two roots. The space seemed to gloat in its investment of acridity, warmed with age. A single spider-web stretched almost entirely over the entrance at the pure-water thinness of a lens, and yet no spider could be seen, Tom noticed. Strange.
Then his focus froze.
It was almost immediately in front of him –not invested with mystery or even gore, but a kind of pity, flayed and abandoned and awful. The ground seemed to seep a little beneath the twisted assemblage of bone – it blossomed in places but in a way that marred any possible shards of white with a congealing grey. Bone seemed to throw up its splinters in a kind of agony, like one shipwreck only united by its dislocation when the beams of wood awn in naked revulsion from the shore. A sensation of soreness ran all over it.
And then, beneath the ragged arches of bent bone, there was movement. Movement like the liquid robes of the clergy through a dripping chapel, dark and heaving with a wordless music. Only this movement was that of a trembling, the lowest form of fear swollen in the form of a septic organ . It mulched like a mouth passively open, grazed by the wind. A sight scarred with decay, yet marked by that certain rural superiority, a permanence – something which would crisp in the air to a relic. The wind, scissoring at the side of his head, made the moisture burn on Tom’s face. His eyes. A decaying heart behind a sheep’s ribcage.
There was the sound of metal on foliage, and then the certain pressure of a foot on the back of his knee. He withdrew heavily, as if his body was immersed in some kind of resent.
He spoke with little awareness of his surroundings.
“It is an animal.”
The response was slipped to him like a sterile needle, a scratch at the end.
“And this is a training exercise. You’ve done as required. Now go.”
He looked up, still on his knees, into Eliza’s face – now closed and cold, as if she was pressed by a layer of plaster, trapping that once free body.
“But - ?”
She bit his protestation clean away by a just the closure of her mouth, lips frozen as if for a sculptor. Shutting out everything with a perfect layer of skin. He was not to be permitted to savour her speech, and his breathing slowed, and he thought of the tongue lying dead in her mouth like a mollusc, like a weeping flesh, like a carcass –
“Officer Beet, you are currently at risk of ruining what has been a very good score so far. So will you please get back to the office? It’s in your best interest…”
Now it was a voice which shifted like the type of honey which strangles the insect. Tom could do nothing but acquiesce, staring up at that perfectly-clothed body, tall and unmoving – and the hollowed-out roots behind her, where a rotting organ teemed with invisible life.
The excursion caused him to return for dinner later than usual – the sky even beginning to protest in its thickening bruise.
Angie was waiting for him at the table, waiting with a kind of dependency he had sensed all the way home, pressing on his pulse, his arteries, his very lungs. It still strained the sweat onto his brow as he collapsed into the nearest chair and spoke with a saturated voice.
“I’m sorry I was late. There was a – misunderstanding – “
He felt the customarily pang of guilt that he had not seen Angie before he left for work this morning, that he had instead slipped onto the street with the liquidity of someone with a secret to hide. Only he had not hidden anything. He had walked to work as the night still condensed at the corners of his vision, and blinds were closed to the streets and all he could see was the occasional dissembled silhouette beginning its routine. His sight had diluted to liquid.
And yet now, her spoken word, sterile, White. Handed to him like dry ice.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine.” It was as if the little studs of her teeth were chipping them to brief bursts of meaning. “Tom.”
She said the single syllable of his name in a way which made him look at her, instinctively.
“Tom, it’s our anniversary.”
She was cautious, limiting her face to tenacious little gestures – encouraging, safe, she recognised he was not in the best of spirits and she stalled into her old paper-thinness, simply cast around, coloured upon. It was no injury to her.
He retorted inside himself with a kind of bitterness – many happy returns. Returning was all he did – to work, to this, his foot moulding to the same shadowed stone in the hallway, the street, the detritus of his being was scattered amongst familiars – routines, meetings. Even Eliza. Even her.
“Tom, look, I’ve made your favourite – “
Her voice flushed through the cold flesh of silence like swollen veins, it agitated him, made him swim up for breath in horrible mouthfuls. He had to look up from his hands, past his watch, past that skeletal ticker and its array of assemblages, past the vaguely occupied ring finger. His eyes met her in a question.
Any kind of response seemed clotted behind the platter which seethed with sauce and meat between them. He reached over customarily, catching his face in the clean metal beneath the bone – a face unhinged and empty, devoid of any concrete association of sense of feeling, pooled and thickened as if without substance, nothing. Not even a smile. Not even a heart.
He appealed up to Angie.
Her hands were working over bone, wrists blistering thick with scent, mouth dripping. Lips lost as part of a smear.
“Your favourite.” She said simply. “Ribs.”