Thursday, 28 April 2016

There's a Woman with a Cactus Instead of a Head (1994)

After it had been written, I remember submitting this story to various magazines without success. Every editor claimed to like it but deemed it too weird. It eventually appeared in my limited edition chapbook The Skeleton of Contention. Since then it has only appeared in certain ebooks, such as THE MILLION WORD STORYBOOK. I hope to include it in a future print book.

There’s a woman with a cactus instead of a head. She has no children. She must be barren. Every morning I climb onto the bus and take the seat just behind her. I am forced to stare at the back of her head — her cactus, rather — and this annoys me. I am needled by it. I would like to curl my fingers into a fist and strike out at that woman. But I will do nothing of the kind. I would be pricked by more than just my conscience. My knuckles would sprout spines.
So I sit there and stare and dream of tequila and tortillas and sweat trickles down my brow. It is always too hot on the bus. Great clouds of steam drift down the aisle. It is difficult to perceive why anyone should want to catch such a bus and sometimes my own actions mystify me. But then I remember why I must catch this bus: it is because I must travel to work every morning. And why do I work? It is because I need money for the bus-fare.
My life is mundane and sour; this is true. But the bus-driver has a much harder time of it than I. Unlike his other passengers, he travels to work every day but never arrives. And then the following day he has another attempt. But all his attempts are as futile as each other. I have never seen his face. It is always bathed in steam. Truly this bus is more like a sauna than a bus; and there are too many windows. But pedestrians rarely peer in. So it does not really matter. Nothing matters.
When the bus arrives at my destination, I jump off with a sigh of relief and make my way to my place of work. To be honest, my place of work looks no different from any other place on the bus-route. The same old houses, crowded like starving toads around a lame bluebottle, with the same crumbling chimneys and the same coughing fits of dense black smoke. Even the people are the same: flat caps squashed down on heads as lumpy as a mug of mushy peas; curlers in blue-grey hair; whippets on strings, trailing behind in the air like kites; kitchen-sink dramatists and noir poets, pacing naturalist paving-slabs in a socio-realist manner, hand-rolled cigarettes cupped in grimy hands, with a left-wing nod at all.
The factory where I toil is a large, hollow rusty building, completely deserted save for a few pigeons and a three-legged dog who lives up in the foreman’s office and howls to be let out. How he came to be locked in the foreman’s office is a mystery to me. I can only guess that he fell through the ceiling while pacing the corroded roof in search of cats or the bones of long-dead roofers whose ladders collapsed behind them in the distant past. Possibly he fell out of an aeroplane or was fired from a cannon in some banned circus or other. Perhaps he was generated spontaneously from the piles of rotting reports and chits in the filing-cabinet. Almost certainly he sustains himself on chocolate bars from the automatic vending-machine, which dispenses one bar a day and has enough in reserve to last at least another decade.
In general appearance, the factory is identical to the one near my own house, which is also deserted. I wonder why I have to travel across half a city to work in this factory, when I might as easily stroll down to the one at the bottom of my road. But then again, I am not paid to be curious. I am paid to make chain. Note that I studiously avoid the plural here. I do not make chains, I make chain; a single continuous length that I have been adding to these past thirty years. This chain passes through a small hole in the wall and out into the grey day. Link by link, with my little hammer, I am binding the world.
Where the chain goes to is anyone’s guess. It stretches far away over the horizon; another cord to fool travellers who seek to escape this labyrinth called life. I once took the notion into my head to follow it, but I was perceptive enough to restrain myself. Wherever it leads to will be a place no different to the one from whence it came. A pointless quest. The maze has no real beginning and no real end. There are only the occasional picnic-areas to give the illusion of rest. I would rather hedge my bets. I will stay where I am and make chain.
Funnily enough, I am never at a loss for materials to make this chain. Through a hole in the opposite wall, a length of redundant chain trails into the factory. This chain stretches over the other horizon. I reel this chain in and remove the links and then add these links to the new chain. When I tug at the old chain, the new chain moves out into the world. This is a phenomenon I have yet to question. Indeed I will not question it. At lunchtime I sit and gnaw at my sandwiches. Every day my sandwiches are the same: anchovy and egg. I loathe anchovy and egg. Every day I make the same vow: if today’s sandwiches are anchovy and egg I will kill myself. This, I believe, will teach my wife a lesson. When I prise open the lid of my sandwich-box and spy the inevitable, I sigh and climb a nearby gantry. I am fully prepared to hurl myself into the rusty void below. But then I remember that it is I who make my sandwiches.
My wife, who does not speak to me, has never made anything for me in all the years of our marriage. And I have never made anything for her. We have what you might call a modern relationship. The reason that my wife does not speak to me is because she does not know how. She is an immigrant whose country of origin I have as yet been unable to ascertain. Her language is comprised entirely of the use of violent gestures and impulsive actions. Despite many hours spent at the local lending library I have not yet found a phrasebook that will enable me to communicate with her. Sometimes when I lie on the bed and watch her climbing the walls and ceiling, I wonder whether we are really right for each other. But she has nice legs.
I once contemplated having an affair with the woman who hands out my pay-packet every Friday. I have never actually seen this woman, but I know that she must exist. Otherwise who is it that leaves my pay-packet on my desk? Admittedly I never touch the thing; I have just enough money left in the bank to keep me going. My needs are simple. No, I leave the pay-packet where it is, in the hope that this woman will seek me out and demand to know why I have not picked it up. But she never does. It does not seem to concern her very much. Nonetheless, a new one is waiting for me every Friday, so she must worry about me to some extent at least. She is so considerate in this respect that she even tries to make the new pay-packet look identical to the old one, right down to the grimy thumbprint on one corner.
Something happened three decades ago, when I took that summer holiday in Luton. I cannot put my finger on what exactly, but I know that before that holiday I seemed to be happier. I had friends, colleagues, hobbies. When I returned, everything seemed subtly different. My house had shrunk to the size of a shed and was full of spades and other rusting garden tools. Also work had became a lonely place; completely deserted save for me, the pigeons and the three-legged dog. Even the journey to work had altered in some almost imperceptible way. Instead of boisterous workers and clamouring children, the bus seemed full of women with the heads of exotic plants. And suddenly I discovered that I had a wife.
I do not dwell on these matters too closely. I know my station in life. It is one of those small rural stops without so much as a waiting-room or a place to buy a cup of tea. But I am content. I work hard, eat a frugal tea of lettuce — there seems to be a great deal of wild lettuce in the vicinity of my house — and listen to the news on my portable radio. Sometimes a thought creeps into my head totally unlike any other that I have ever had. It whispers that my whole life has been founded on a mistake, a misunderstanding that occurred shortly after I returned from that fateful vacation.
That first morning back — always a disorienting experience — I had somehow forgotten the way to the nearest bus-stop. So I asked a passerby for directions. He smiled back at me and said: “Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left!” I duly thanked him for this and set off. He must have been a very friendly man indeed, for as I walked away I could hear him laughing merrily behind me, obviously pleased that he had been able to assist another human being. I found the bus waiting for me, boarded it and sat down. And that was the very first time that I saw the woman with the cactus instead of a head.
But what if he had given me the wrong directions? This is the thought that occasionally troubles me. What if he had misheard me and had directed me not to the bus-stop but to the local greenhouse? This would explain why the bus is usually bathed in steam. I know that it is an absurd idea, but at least it proves that I have a vivid imagination. I wish there was someone I could share the joke with. My wife is always too busy spinning webs or eating flies. No matter. I will savour the jest alone. I will retire to bed and dream of tequila and tortillas. I will turn the thought over in my mind more slowly. It is too far-fetched to be worthy of serious consideration, but it continues to obsess me. At the very least, it would also explain why the real greenhouse is always full of shopping-bags and gossiping old ladies.

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