The Caretaker and the Sea
The suicide men.
They all knew what people called them.
But no-one cared.
They were all dressed the same, but you’d never spot them.
They were the quietly dressed suited men and women on the bus or tube.
Those that you’d dismiss.
Those that weren’t reading a book but seemed to be studying something outside the window.
The moniker had come from something that an ex-employee had said at one of the staff doos. He’d been trying to do all of the normal things, but not quite getting it. Trying to fuck the ones outside of his own solar system. Then having a few heavy drinks more. Then getting closer to it, but blurting out things about how he desired something else, the banter of drunks, too fluid to be in the present or exact, but in time to the damning music none the less.
Jerome would think about what he did for a living in the evenings, and the ones that made it in the company, after a metal boat on wheels had taken him home.
It was the only work that his degree could scrape together for him, in the service that is. He liked the uniform though, easy smarts, as he called them. A good cheap suit, no tie, decent pants, polished shoes. He would fry some simple foods, and wait for his phone to buzz, when his supervisor would ask him how the day had gone.
Then dream about it all. The work and the dreams mated like feral cats on fire.
You would begin your day, then vice-versa.
The air and the knackered sat-nav made it better.
You always had to visit the homes in twos, due to the nature of the work. Jerome wouldn’t have minded going it alone, most days, especially if he was training a newbie. He’d make the morning easy though, and drive to the address of the new employee early on. If the girl was wearing anything too prim, he’d send her back in to get changed. If the boy was wearing anything unironed, he’d do the same.
As he took an exit from the roundabout he looked up at a billboard advertising the newest comic film. The main character was mixture of an office junior that spoke too much and an April fool’s joke, nothing new, and nothing like the original. The city’s Autumn was graceful in its departure from a slightly warmer sibling, and the buildings were tattooed with the names of children that poured from the suicide men’s clients. The drive had a leavening effect on Jerome, not because he was unfamiliar with these parts of the city, but because the buildings drank the rain with open mouths, and he knew that another few steps like that would pull his car in, and make him scream too.
The trainee that morning hadn’t made it out of bed. Bad start. His supervisor’s nephew might get kept on, but it wouldn’t be him who trained him. And there was nothing to train, only to understand that no human is vermin, and there was a road taken, with a clear logic back. The failings of the NHS to confront the reasons for suicides had made a great campaign for the new elected party.
Jerome wasn’t a political type. He liked to get in and out from it all like an animal he didn’t know the name of. He’d seen the animal once. At night. It looked like a mixture of many things. As if a taxidermist had fallen asleep with a sculptor. They’d swapped each other’s professions, and then just gone at it.
The drive down a few of the city’s backroads calmed him down.
He’d been too sharp with the new trainee and he knew it. Or, neither he or his supervisor was like that. At the end of the initial training week Kath had offered to give him a lift home. She was handsome. And that was only the description that stuck with Jerome when he tried to describe her looks. That true, ash blonde hair, or, dirty blonde, if you wanted to say it that way. The grey was coming out from the skull, supplanting the other colours there, and she had no time to change it. She wasn’t married, and she didn’t have many guests in her hatchback. She didn’t bother to apologise about the discarded crisp packets or the coke cans littered around the passengers leg space where she chucked them, and she made no conversation as she whipped in and out of the lanes like a subtle snake, out gearing more powerful cars with an impressive grace.
Jerome pulled up outside of a row of derelict housing. You could tell that people still lived there however, their bins piled up with half destroyed buggies, smiling detergent boxes, and even the odd fox near-by knowing that he or she could get away with dancing in the day. Jerome picked up the file on his seat, and slapped his glove compartment at the same time. He dug around inside and found some mints, chucking a few down his neck, and taking a slug from the sugary drink he had placed in the holder beside him.
Being a suicide man in the city, was like knowing so many alternate lives. After the system had received the most lucid types of case, from local, to national, back to local, then referral, then private, here they were. Many years ago, after the windfall of the government saying this was their herald too, they had been bought out by a private company, somewhere in the middle east. No-one ever tried to go that far as to question it, as, their agenda spoke for itself.
Jerome stopped dividing the time this way and that and stepped out onto the street. The client’s gate laid on the pavement. It looked like it had been there since the house was built. More of a part of the cement than a home. The garden was overgrown with a million wild varieties of weed and grass. It struck Jerome, that he almost found it beautiful. The way that the green was absolute in a way, against the barricaded windows of the sad home. This building had had different ideas once, like those of the people building it, and the gropes and sighs of all the efforts that put it together. He walked up to the front door. The buzzer was rusted to a holt, and there was a smaller metal face covering the window above the knocker, just so that every person inside was a stranger to every person outside, without choice.
After a few slams of the knocker Jerome heard some thumps behind the door. Soft and mushy, slipping, then still, then slipping. He heard the mechanism of the door’s lock moving, and then it opened.
The man at the door was smiling, and the air inside didn’t belch of nightmares like they sometimes did. He was around fifty like the brief had said. A Samuel Harringday. His beard spread down to his collar bone, although it looked like someone drunk had cut his hair. He pulled up his loose jeans and smacked his lips as if waiting for his guest to say something. Jerome did, and showed him his I.D.
“Oh I guess, that was how long ago? Jeez… Yeah… Come in.” He said.
Jerome followed Sam into his small terraced home, and forgot about the protocol of only meeting clients in twos. The first door on the right led them into the living room. The home had nothing that he had become accustomed to in his work. No tight river paths of walking space, where either side was overcome by waves of junk, and you had to step through like a bashful archaeologist, so to not step on empty cans or syringes. The light green carpet was completely bare, and the television was turned off.
“I would offer you something young man, but err, this is all I’ve got…” Sam said lifting his king size bottle of cider up from the carpet. There were dips in the carpet where the man placed his bottle after each deep swig. But no-where else. It was obvious that this was the place where he always placed his cider. His voice had a strange ring to it, and Jerome smiled ‘no’, whilst he took out his papers, sat in an arm chair adjacent to Sam. He wasn’t inquisitive, Jerome noticed, as many of the clients were, having had no contact with anyone from the agency bar a letter sparse with explanation, but offering a meeting if they wished.
“Where you from lad?” Sam asked, looking across at Jerome, as if trying to hold something in, by the curling smile of his cheek. Of course, you never mentioned anything like that. Jerome could tell that the man was not native English. The accent was buried deep, under the normal intonations of someone from east of the city, but there was no hiding it, and the mellow green eyes against his dim olive skin gave clue as well. There was a pad and paper laying on the sofa beside the man, and a strange uncanvased acrylic work hung on the wall. It fit, of course. Ex art teacher, ex this, ex that, like a waterfall of jobs inside one life, but Jerome’s training kept him on track. He placed the paper on his knee. Then began.
He asked the man about the last time they found him in the river, how many times he had attempted it, and why he attempted it. All of the answers surprised him, and were shot back with a great mirth, more interested in developing ideas than developing dread.
“Well I don’t know…! I would use time as an excuse, then damn all whom I have met, before myself! As we all do!” He said at one point.
And it was hard not to laugh at such candid replies. Especially at those which were not self devouring, and more about the chasm which those questions asked the interviewee to enter. Finally, Jerome stood back from protocol and offered the man his papers. He handed them to a man who hardly knew he was there, as Sam put his hand up to apologise about lifting his bottle, and taking another deep swig.
“Ok. Ready ready soldier. What’s all this then. Wait, let me find my glasses…” He patted on the sheets of paper beside him, whilst entrenched in the documents, then placed them on, more like a professional might, hurried and particular, as supposed to a drunk, or otherwise.
The morning dipped into afternoon as Sam read through the documents. Outside the local kids played, making sounds like they were tearing each apart with cheap engined vehicles of different types. Every now and then a slam bounced off the metal barred windows and he looked up, then smiled at Jerome.
“Oh I see, the process. Yes. Yes. I agree… More has to be done and all that,” Sam said, “I guess you guys must work for a private company of sorts. I wish you had come when I was younger! Where were you then! Or, or, or oh I don’t know. Most of my stuff only works one way, you know? You can come look. I normally start later on though… What’re you saying? Oh-” He said, finding the infrared photos at the back of the pack showing him painting, where the agency had tracked his work, “You lot are pretty sharp ay? I’ll give you that… Much sharper than old Sam haha!”
They employed Jerome for the same reason that they employed all of the suicide men.
Easy to change. And easy to make dream of change, strangely, making them focus. Although, the training took out that part that allowed a person to do many of the things that people find normal. It was the voice that made them stand out. So they rarely spoke. Their reaction to things that many people let go, and tried to ignore, mostly, when they were around civilians, showed you them as well. A man hassling quiet tourists on the tube ended with an unconscious man, in a strike, and a departure, and such. There were no questions.
“Sure sure, no problems soldier! Oh-” And Sam stopped for a moment, “The only way that it works with me though is if you see it for yourself. Is that a deal?” He added, raising his eyes to Jerome.
And this was the reason that they only came in twos.
So to not walk anywhere near the maze that their clients walked, and so that if one of them did, the other could pull them back. Jerome nodded. Sam signed the papers. And they both stood up. Sam looked around his body wondering if he had forgotten something, then chuckled below his breath, knowing that there was nothing to forget. They walked out from his home and towards Jerome’s car, finding themselves on a south road towards the coast in a short piece of time.
Sam did his normal things as they became trapped in rush hour traffic, scribbling things down on a pad, that he produced from his inner coat pocket. Jerome’s phone buzzed, he turned it off, and tossed it onto the back seat, making Sam laugh. There was no passenger with him. There was. It was a Thursday. The day was close to the thieves but not quite. Jerome drove south until the city began to transform into suburbs. The churches were not corralled by endless streets, there were homes, but the street lamps lit parts of the road without the need for endless neon herds of advertisements and shimmering shop signs. The departure south seemed quick, and they drove through the early evening darkness and into the late. The road flowed up and down as the terrain became more linked to the earth, and Jerome knew that they were driving back to the same place where he had danced with his wife in the dunes.
Soon, they were driving down a long sandy road, with only occasional lights from off-kilter street lamps. There were black caravans parked all around, like sleeping children, on either side. The tar-mac was smooth and well kept however, as if during day: this was a place that was worth maintaining. The barrier to let cars into the coastal car-park was up, since they were past the hours when anyone cared. Jerome drove into the rectangle place and pulled over to the right, looking around, before making a full circle, and parking in one of the lots. He breathed out. Sam chuckled, and said “Sure, just over there.” With a straight finger pointing off into the darkness of the sky, and into the rowdy waves of the sea which they could not yet see.
The wind decided to be off that night and cut at the two with bayonets.
There was no changing that, but there was their cheer. Sam was like a walking carnival of cider, having things buried in his back-pack here, there, and all around. Jerome had a few smokes left, that he had pre-rolled, and kept in a silver wallet that he took out. So they walked forwards, sometimes side by side, then in different places. Jerome flicked his collar up and smoked like a city dweller, Sam let it all go and smoked like a pagan. They walked off-track from the first long grasses of the sand, and tripped up occasionally where the roots were stubborn under foot. They walked along silently one after the other after a while and just enjoyed the moon sailing its laughter into the black of the rushing sea. After a time, the edge of the dunes became rock, and the incline built upwards.
And where we are both solitude, Jerome thought. And where the dances rushing over into the sea’s midnight, we are not, Sam said. And it took a while, but the walk became too steep, and they realised that they were near the first of the coast’s small mountains. It reached up in the same place where Jerome slobbered, and the wind took his smoke away in a single swipe. His wife had asked him here if he would like a threesome for his birthday, then balked in time at her own words, knowing that she was enough, or at least, the things that ghosts would say to humans so many lives ago. Eclipsing. And starting out onto the sea. The waves slammed into the rocks below, and Jerome found a place to sit. Sam did the same, and chuckled with that same knowing laugh under his voice. A rasp. A sound within the night.
They sat there for some time. Exchanging thoughts about the gala of it all. The things that had brought Jerome here, today, with Sam, and the things that had brought Sam here, an older man, more ready for death. Jerome knew that one of them had to die. And, it would be the artist. He stopped doing his job, for a second, and saw old Sam turn into a magnificent moth. His wings opened. His bust up jacket began to flow out, and create a set of wings. There were great tapestries against the night in his wings, where the moon shone through, and caught the still moving lives of his relationships and art in their silken thin flesh. Which is when the wind took him, and he lifted up for a moment, and flew forwards and down away from sight.
Jerome looked at the man as he flew down. His eyes through the rain could only discern small movements as Sam became one with the sea below. A flight, then a pebble, then a dot, then a nothing. Time passed hollow and dislocated. Jerome felt at home with the waves making their music. The seagulls swore, and he felt his own head rocking, looking ever more lovingly down at the rock and water punch-up below too. Time passed again in the rugged way that rabid weather allows. Neither allowing your mind to drift too much because of the cold, but allowing it to feel its own nature, rapid and shifting, like a hangman’s soup of both sharp climate and drift. Jerome decided that his career was over and stood up, ready to walk away, and explain everything to a party which excepted losses, especially where his KPI was normally high.
A hand reached up above the rock as Jerome was turning. Not touching his foot, but reaching for it, grabbing some sand-grass instead. Digging in, and pulling the rest of itself up.
“Hey hey hey, no dives, ugh, ughhh…” The man said.
Jerome looked down and saw someone pulling themselves up. It wasn’t Sam, but a form like Sam, crab eyes, liquid spurting out from its mandible mouth, and random legs bursting out from its sides. It pulled itself up, leg by leg by leg, arm by arm by arm, and looked up at Jerome.
“He who leaves the party too… Eughch-” The being said, “-still getting used to its new form, “Misssses… Soooo… Much!”
Jerome could no longer think. He could only run. He ran through the long black grass towards a car that wasn’t there and fell over many times, adrenaline overpowering his coordination. Soon he just chuckled in the reeds, until the moon’s light was blotted out by the chaos of a wide body. It had a rough human form, it had pincers where teeth should have been, it had eyes that swam, with a complete blackness instead of the mixing of white, iris, and pupil. It cut away at Jerome’s body for some time, pincers digging into his flesh and passing up the meat to its mouth, all the while humming the low tune that Jerome had danced to with his wife.
It stood up, looked down at the bloody murder, and walked over towards the parked car, satiated. The documents had asked for the source, and the man had signed, while a man at least, happy to go along. The keys may have been in his guts. And the broken stories of sea birds swam all around. Sam looked away to the sea, as he noticed that he could tell each and every route of the boats coming in beyond the horizon, and even the small drift of the buoys was traceable in a grid of sharp sense within sense. He smashed the car window with his shelled skull, and passed one of his arms inside to open the door.
Something passed around in his chest, then darted out to each of his limbs in quick fires of electric pulse, faster, and faster, with each purr of blood, making him realise that he was away from something that he missed. The water. Yes. I have only limited time away, he thought. Ravaging through the back seat of Jerome’s car he found a dead phone, and managed to turn it on with his tongue. It buzzed awake, and he found the last missed call, ‘Kath’.
He hit call back and spoke to the dismayed voice on the other end without halting.
He said, in a deep fleshy croak “Parallel lives, euuch- ka ka, are emotion. When you – – kich kich kich – – come for us, we come for you…”
After this, there was only time to dance, as Sam returned to the sea. In an awful crab by man way.
Step by step.
But a way, and a place, where he would at last, be accepted.