Looks of scorn, unthinking, unearned. Faces magazine cover beautiful, plastic, doll-like; plained and air-brushed to inhuman perfection.
Except the eyes, where pain lives, where disappointment swills and bubbles like chemical filth.
Others...denied even that mask of completion; men and women who look as though they're unfinished, coming apart, by comparison. Not able to afford the technology, resisting it as a point of protest.
So many, so many. Feeling them break; a river of humanity, impatience and resentment, frustration and unhappiness. The smiles they wear superficial, something missing; assembled wrong, something denied them, torn away from them, that they don't know the shape or name of.
Wounds. Wounds in their perfect, frictionless faces, their gym-sculpted, diet-honed bodies: wounds that they can't see, but that they feel. All of them bleeding, to my eyes; seeping out across the concrete platform, as they wander, as they worry; as they tut and sigh and argue and wait, wait, wait...
Twenty four minutes. Twelve delayed. Trains arriving at other platforms, grateful stampedes; cattle lowing. Sighs and curses and rolled eyes, men with immaculate haircuts and expensive suits throwing shrieking, foot-stomping temper tantrums at fat, balding, indifferent men, insincerely smiling women.
I hate my job. I hate my home. I hate my family. I hate my life.
Bloodier than most, pouring with it, their effluent dripping over the edge of the platform. Shredded, almost skinless inside their expensive, finely cut suits, grey and pale blue blooming a dark burgundy before my eyes.
Watching, taking care not to linger; to stare too long, for fear of catching their eyes, being seen in my turn.
I couldn't bear that.
A child shrieking laughter further up the platform, a Mother pleading with it, offering every gift and torment she can contrive in return for some silence, some peace. Scarlet tears staining her face, the child already scratched, beginning to bleed.
An elderly couple, shuffling along, clinging to one another's arms, barely seeming to see anyone or anything around them. Pulp on the bone; no longer red, compost black and infested, their most genuine, loving children squirming in their flesh, taking flight as they sprout wet, gossamer wings.
Heading home. To their friends and families, to share some delusion of warmth; to shiver together, and pretend that they don't bleed.
I'd laugh at them, if not for the fact that it would alert them to me, make me known. No more wounds for me; the scratches and scars I bear enough, enough.
But one does see, his eyes razors, his attention autopsy: slicing, scouring, fresh rivulets dripping down my sleeves, my cheek, my chest.
I'm not here. I'm nothing.
Lies that are usually enough, but not here; not for him. Not like the rest; what wounds he bears sealed and scarred over, no longer bleeding.
Young, like me, a book in his hands, clothes rumpled and second hand, several days unshaven beard clinging to his chin.
Oh God. Oh Christ...
The wounded not seeming to see, any more than they do their own shadows, as he sifts through them, hoisting a brown leather bag over one shoulder, plucking the headphones from his ears.
Drawing next to me, sighing, smiling.
Twenty one minutes. Thirty eight seconds. Time sludge, air congealing, becoming hot and rancid, making it difficult to breathe.
No words, glancing around like a bird, finding fascination everywhere. In everything.
Waiting. For words, for confessions. Some familiar song, signalling his recognition of something alike. Turning to him, though the motion grinds and grates, though time slows, making a glacier of me.
A lop-sided smile, one side of his pretty, feminine lips curling.
Glancing around, at the nearby bleeding.
"Don't worry; they won't hear."
Sniffing, closing his eyes; a cat's kiss.
"Oh, I know that. They never do."
Always strange, these coincidental meetings, that they promised would never be. More frequent, in recent years; things breaking down, the systems slowly, slowly collapsing. They all know it, of course; sense it, even through the masks and delusions they drape themselves in, the smiling insistence that they are happy and whole.
This one...so young, even beyond the appearance he affects.
Scuffing his feet, fidgeting with the hem of his flannel, tartan shirt.
"So, you here for...?"
"No, no..." Urgent smiles, assuring. "Passing through. On my way home, actually."
The youth raising a pierced, inquisitive eyebrow. "Really? So, you're..?"
"Done. For a little while, at least. Truth be told, I need the rest. The last job..."
Unable to keep a flash of inquistiveness from his eye.
"A big one, was it?"
"Bigger than most..."
Wanting the name. Aching for it; a lesson, an example...inspiration, for his own assignments.
"Cool. Cool. It's mostly bits and pieces around here, you know; car accidents, a few house fires. I did this one the other day; hardly took anything: this guy...he already hated them, underneath it all..."
"Ah! Families are the easiest, aren't they? Especially around this time of year..."
"Season of peace and good will and all that..."
How many rules? How many protocols broken, just by speaking? Things have changed, since it all began. Since I first wrote my own atrocities.
Ah. The inevitable. Eighteen minutes, twenty three seconds. Not long, now. Not knowing me, clearly, but after a sense; my type, my pedigree. Scenting it on me, like blood, like sickness; like I scented it on the first; the ones who took me and showed me how.
Who gave me a life outside of systems.
"...I know it's, like, a problem and everything..."
A problem? Already smiling, sniffing laughter. A problem? Things have changed; they're not afraid anymore; they've never known what happens, never seen it, when protocol isn't maintained, when we and they and the world is allowed to run riot. Don't they show them anymore? Don't they let them see the alternative..?
"It's fine. Ask."
The platform so full, now; people grunting and tutting as others shove and bustle by, as old men and women smack young shins with their walking aids, as children bark and wail and shriek.
"You've, like, been doing this for a while, yeah? You've seen some...some shit?"
The world seeming to sift and revolve around me; a storm of smeared, fractured ghosts, every fire and collapse, every accident and atrocity...so small, at first. What's one life, or a handful, or a few handfuls..?
"I'll tell you some stories, if you like, but...you need to understand: if I do, it won't be me they come for. It won't be me they make an example of. You're lucky they aren't singing already."
The youth's face furrowing, his smile melting.
Waiting. Listening, glancing at his watch, the surrounding crowds, clearly looking for a particular face.
"Damn. It's just...I don't always know...what I'm supposed to do, you know? Why we do it..."
"Believe me, it doesn't get any clearer, and won't do you any good to ask. They've given you...how many years, now?"
The boy raising a hand to his face, tracing the edges of an invisible wound.
"I...I'm not sure. Fourteen, fifteen...maybe twenty. I'm not sure."
Twelve minutes. Thirteen seconds. People harassing anyone who looks even vaguely official; people pushing cleaning carts, one woman yelling across to a uniformed man on the opposite platform, cursing ripely when he refuses to answer.
"Twenty. Let's say twenty. I can't remember when it began, how it began: I don't remember where they took me from or what my name was...I can't remember the first or the third or the tenth. I've...I've been there, to the Circles. I've seen them; wanted to ask. God! You've no idea! But...I didn't, and they've never told. When I get home today...it's been a long few years, believe me...when I get home today, I'm going to put on some music, open some wine; I'm going to eat my Christmas dinner in peace, and I'm going to forget the world. Understand?; That's what we have to do; that's what they demand of us.
"I'm not telling you to stop asking questions; I'm not saying I won't answer. All I'm saying is: be very, very careful, for your own sake, because you do not want to end up back where you began."
The boy gaping, blinking, nodding his head in slow aquiescence.
"I'm...I'm sorry, man. I just...you know; the things we have to do..."
Trying not to let the laughter inside show, the condescension. The things he's done? Nothing. Nothing compared to what he will, if he lasts long enough.
Ten minutes. Five seconds.
"I know, I know. And...believe me; I appreciate the opportunity: we don't get to talk about it often, but that's rather the point, isn't it?"
"I suppose. So...three years? Sounds like a big job..."
Still fishing, despite my advice, still aching to know.
"You'll see, come the new year. Something that's going to shake it all up. You'll know, when it happens."
"Oh, by the way...I...you might want to get home some other way...in fact, I'd avoid trains altogether, for today."
Sighing, anticipating the waiting, the multiple bus journeys before me.
"Thanks. For the warning."
"It's okay, man, it's okay."
"Should I...keep an eye on the news, later?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Yeah. You'll hear about it, if it comes off."
I've no doubt. Six minutes. Two seconds. Hissed, distorted announcements through the tannoy system, providing updates on delays and platform alterations, cancellations and arrivals.
The boy smiling as he turns, melting away into the crowds, seeking out that one; the mind he's followed and guided here, that he might whisper to. Closing my eyes, finding him almost instantly: a pulsing star of black and red in a smeared mass of grey and brown; a spot of blood amongst shit.
So familiar...the taste and texture of him; barbed, jagged; almost fractured, not understanding how they can't see and sense him, how he's held together in his own mind and flesh. Dissatisfaction, disappointment; pain and anger and fury at the world, wanting nothing more than to burn it for the sin of a little pleasure.
No religious fanatic or political revolutionary; not one who might murder for God or freedom or equality: a bitter, disappointed man, his loves come to nothing, unable to bear the sight or even thought of them: those embracing, those kissing, those enraptured by the thought of home.
Not knowing what he has planned; only that it wil go bad for me if I'm caught up in it. The Choirs will no doubt want to know; the story told detail by detail; information I can't provide, not being the maestro of this particular piece.
Three minutes. Eighteen seconds.
The train pulling in, grinding against the tracks, its exterior blue and grey, smeared with black and brown, its lights green and red and orange.
Waiting, watching as they mill and mass; as they herd towards the doors, collectively praying, aching for the buttons to activate, for the entry lights to flash.
Hanging back, feeling him; the man who dreams of fire, of smoke, of twisted metal and ruptured flesh, of screams and prayers and misery, misery, misery; enough to eclipse his own, and make what little life he has left bearable.
My friend, my young contemporary, with him; shadowing him, a born temptor, invisible, inaudible, whispering at his ear.
I watch, as they board, as they take their seats together. Watch, as the whistle blows, and the train pulls away, slowly disappearing into distant blackness.
Later, I'll know. Later, I'll hear the story; maybe even see footage and photographs on the evening news.
By then, I won't have the means of understanding. Just another tragedy; another senseless, idiot example of how godless the universe is.
Until then, I linger, savouring the scents of oil and diesel, of metal and machinery, of sweat and food and blood. The dead dreams that will never flourish; the stories that will never be told. Confessions of love and hate, of betrayal and undying devotion.
All here, as they are everywhere; recorded on the air, seeped into stone and metal and plastic, waiting for minds receptive enough to know them, if only for a moment's grace.
So happy, so happy to be home. Weariness leeching out of my limbs, the last few day's travails slowly fading, forgotten.
As always, I try to hold on; making a game of remembrance, even as the memories fade and smear; as atrocity becomes nightmare, becomes fairy tale, becomes nothing.
A sweet serenity, peace that few other men know; our reward, for the duty we do, the service we perform. Contentment, in our own company, relief from loneliness and abandonment and disappointment.
Later, after food, after a little port, I'll go upstairs, to my loft, my model railways, set the new additions on their tracks, let them get used to their routes and runs; the wider system.
Far more efficient than anything the current transport authorities can contrive. Hours and hours; each engine arriving at its allotted station on the dot, the instant; no breakdowns, no collisions; no delays or cancellations.
Just the comforting regularity of a system that functions, of utter control.
But first, food: no dry, tasteless turkey in this house: a beef wellington, prepared before the last job came through, wrapped in the fridge, awaiting its chance to bake.
Flipping on the TV as it does, pouring myself the first of many glasses of port, seating myself next to the window, hoping to see the first flurry of snow.
An answered prayer, motes falling, blazing orange embers by the streetlamp light; the fiery fallout of some disaster, of bodies burning.
An echo on screen; scenes of fire, of panic, of blood and broken, mangled things: stammering, uncertain reports of some mass atrocity. Trains colliding. Trains exploding. Trains veering off their tracks. Up and down the country, more reports coming in.
So terrible, so sad. It might have been me. It might have been...
Flicking through the channels, seeking something of comfort, that won't spoil dinner.
Some comedian, making light of nothing in particular, raising laughter by referencing nothing more than sleeping and toilet and shopping habits. Not hearing; leaving him to blither as the snow falls, as I eat crisp pastry, savoury mushroom, rare meat.
Retiring, plates unwashed, remains of my gluttony left on the dining room table. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
The world a dead TV channel, a storm of bewildering white and glowing ash. Thoughts turning to the images on screen; the trains ploughed off their tracks, the scattered bodies, the fires.
"Stop being such a morbid prat; nothing you can do."
Nothing you can do.
The loft cold, but blazing bright, single bulb a sun over the miniature world it hosts. Snow pattering against the roof, winds howling.
Flicking on the plugs and switches; electric radiators warming the space. Settling into my chair at the controls.
New additions; a replica of The Duchess of Hamilton, proud in her gold and burgundy, the shimmering Silver Fox, not lost, but transplanted here, to this tiny world.
New and old, hissing into life, internal mechanisms whispering as they trace their courses around the track.
Hypnotic, their regularity so soothing, better than any sedative. I'll likely sleep here tonight...
No. Not tonight. Tonight, there is business to attend, duty to discuss.
Memory, returning with sudden precision; enough to make me jolt in my chair, to dig my nails into its leather arms. Teeth clenched, grating.
The trains continuing on their rounds, sickening, now; nauseating to my far older, more honest eyes.
"Do you...have any idea, any idea, how foolish this is?"
The intruder stepping out from the shadows, shedding them like the tatters of an old and fraying veil. Stumbling into the light.
Burned, bloodied, still smouldering; caught up in his own endeavours.
But smiling. Smiling.
"I..." Words coming haltingly to his mangled, molten lips, half of his face reduced to black and red ruin. The stink of him...almost enough to bring up my recently devoured wellington. "...I didn't know...where else..."
"Where else? Fucking Christ...anywhere, nowhere. Don't you understand? It's nothing to do with me! And here, here? Weren't you taught anything when they took you?"
The boy blinking the one eye he still can, sincere confusion welling there, amongst tears.
"They didn't, did they? Good God, how far have things slipped? You cannot be here, you understand? Anyone, anyone could have followed you here. We have enemies. You know that much, at least?"
Slowly, slowly shaking his mangled head.
Massaging mine with one hand.
"For fuck's...okay. Okay. First thing: let's get you at least a little cleaned up."
Rising from my chair, still unsteady on my feet, seething and uncertain at his presence. My place; mine. The only sanctuary against it all; the only thing I've ever asked for or demanded.
Undone, now; tarnished by this violation, never mine again, never inviolate.
Slumping in my arms, grinning gratitude, no volition left, no strength to hold himself upright.
Carrying him down the stairs, to the landing, the bathroom. A rough attempt to strip him, tatters of burned skin, gobbets of flesh, coming away with the denim and cotton soldered to them. The boy trembling, mewling throughout, but offering no defiance.
Idiot. To be caught up in his own work like that...
Oh, how quickly they forget...
Yes, yes; I remember, well enough: lessons that might have murdered, that claimed so many, from what I later heard: infantile trips and stumblings in the dark; the equivalents of bruising my knee, pricking my fingers, burning myself on open flame.
No one there; no one to salve or soothe me; crueller times.
"You have made a mess of yourself, haven't you? Wait here a moment; I need to just..."
Just what? So simple, on the face of it; just need to pop out and find you...something more suitable to wear.
But where, on a night like tonight? The snow already thick, already beginning to pile up. Where..?
Stop. There are always places. You know that.
Yes. Always places, always those willing to sell themselves for the promise of a roof, a hot meal, a warm bed, especially on nights like tonight.
Not concerned about that. Rather, about what might be watching; what he might have already led to my damn doorstep.
What price we might have to pay.
Easing him into the bathtub, running cold water. The boy sighing, easing back his head, eyes fluttering with something like relief.
No words, no apologies; not here. Breath and time wasted, for both of us.
Downstairs, struggling into boots and thick, thick winter coat, taking a moment to assess myself in the mirror. Not that it matters; a personal vanity: the ones I'm going to meet won't care less what I look like; certainly better than most that call on them, even at my most ragged.
Hurrying along ways where only the most ardent eyes might follow; back alleys and underpasses, old, overgrown side-streets...
Not that it matters; if they have a mind to find me, they will. Perhaps they'll have already come for him when I get back; spirited him away from my keeping, my obligation.
Almost praying for it, though I don't know what repercussions they might visit on me as a result. How to even explain him? How he came to find me..?
I don't know. I don't know.
So weary, after the work; ragged and fraying. Needing rest; needing to...forget. Just for a while; a month or so. Then, then, I'll show them some work; hymns the like of which the Choirs have never known...enough to make this idiot boy's bleatings sound like dying infant's croaks by comparison.
Though, I have to admit, for one so young...the coordination is impressive: thirteen trains, across the country; one for each of the Choirs. Clever.
I'm sure they appreciate the wit.
Seeping by the time I reach the outer fences; wet from more than just molten snow. Unravelling, this man, this forgotten meat...coming apart around me.
Still, he'll endure a little while longer; long enough, I hope.
The schoolyard still shattered, its concrete undulating; the back of some diseased, buried titan, sprouting with weeds and wildflowers, almost protected from the snow by the building itself:
Immense, black bricked, a partially collapsed bell tower rising from amongst its wings. St. Christina's Academy for Boys, once upon a time. Protected; the local council unable to touch it, following a public outcry against its demolishment. Now, left to moulder, hap-hazardly sealed off against intrusion, the makeshift wire fences surrounding it all torn or burned or cut through, the place a known haven for local drug-addicts and runaways, for lost boys and girls.
A favourite playground, not indulged in often; not wanting to lose it, to risk myself. A long, long time since my last visit; this face only a boy's, when it was taken. This meat...leaner, taughter, more coherent, than I've let it become.
Easing my way through a ragged rent in the fence, snaring the back of my hand on a jag of rusted metal.
The wound not bleeding right away, what seeps from me dark, cold and viscous. Resisting the instinct to press it to my lips, not knowing what it might do.
A tear that might give at any moment, that might spill me out in the snow.
What the fuck are you doing here?
Laughing, humour becoming sickness as I hack and splutter, as something cold and congealed rises in my throat. Spitting it into the white; a gobbet of hissing black.
"Come on, come on..."
Someone to greet me, as always; one of their little watchers, the waifs posted on the outer walls. Two: a boy and girl, barely wrapped against the cold, their clothes stained and tattered. The boy glares at me suspiciously, toying with something in his pocket. Unshaven, unfed, sickness and suspicion crawling over him like an infestation. The girl...she smiles, drawing back, a little behind him, already having learned her place and purpose.
"Hey! What the fuck do you want? This is private property, you know."
I laugh, unable to help myself, thinking of beef wellington, of warm fires, of plastic trains whispering around synthetic plastic countryside. I could be there, now, instead of here, freezing my arse off for some...idiot, idiot child.
"Oh, I know that; I'm here to see Simeon. Is he..?"
Of course he is. Of course he is. Simeon's always around.
The boy's scowl melting, the girl's smile with it. His hand emerging from his pocket, empty.
"What the fuck you want, mate?"
"Tell Simeon that Fairchild's here. He'll understand."
The boy sharing a momentary glance with the girl, the latter furrowing her brow, narrowing her eyes; an unspoken command, dragging him back through the doorway behind.
"You just...wait here, okay? Don't...just wait here."
Raising my hands, glad of the gloves. Not knowing what they might make of the processes underway beneath.
Seconds, ticking away. A minute. New trickles, new tears opening. I feel it; beneath my trousers, in my boots. Something fundamental giving way in the nick of my leg, a seam gaping.
Come on, God damn it!
Soon, there'll be no means; soon, they'll take one look at me and refuse, even under Simeon's duress. Soon, there'll be sores and clumps of hair falling out. Soon, there'll be lesions and blood and a reek beyond belief.
Something...wings in the snow, a flock of tin-winged magpies, taking flight.
God damn it. God damn it. Right to my door. I knew it; I knew they'd come, the moment I saw him...
The man emerging from the doorway flanked by older boys and girls, their demeanour not friendly, but seductive, the poses, the looks; the tight jeans and tops. No doubt the best fed, the most pampered; those with rooms and bedding...maybe even functioning toilets.
An almost surreal contrast to the man they accompany, the shepherd they follow like the most docile, drug-sedated sheep.
Simeon...Eldridge Simeon...one of ours, nominally; afforded a little more...independence than most, for the services he provides.
"You look like shit."
"Thank you, Simeon. Always a pleasure."
A knowing smile. "That is my business, after all."
Making a play of hardship, the silver-topped cane in his hand rattling, as he takes the steps one at a time, the numerous layers of lavishly coloured clothing he wears -much of it clearly designed for other frames, other sexes- whispering around his mosquito limbs.
A goodly head of hair, for a man his age, much of it still blonde, his eyes still blue enought to arrest, if he has a mind. Showing his age when he smiles, when he frowns; the former far more frequent than the latter.
"Speaking of which..."
"Yes. I need..."
"Something to keep you warm?"
Casting a glance to the boy at his side; a wave-haired blonde, pretty, in his own statuesque way, but frictionless, like so many, now; the blankly staring, dead-faced, eye-screaming dolls back at the train station: synthetic beauty, genetically mapped and projected before birth. Expensive stuff, leading me to wonder wonder what sin could have made his parents abandon such an investment...
"No. Not me."
The man's smile dying, the boys retreating with a flick of his hand. Still casting their needy glances my way, still hungry for whatever drug or addiction he has them tethered by.
Slumping towards me through the snow, dragging his many skirts behind him.
"...I told you last time; none of mine, no more meat."
"You can't refuse, Simeon."
"Can I not?"
"No. Not without the Choirs..."
"Oh, fuck the Choirs!" Spitting into the snow, swirling around dramatically.
"You know how long it's been, since one of them came calling? Since I even heard from one of their agents..?"
"I can guess..."
"Almost thirty years. Thirty! I've seen boys become old men and die, during that time. I've had the children of boys and girls I raised from the tit come to me, selling themselves for me! I listen, Fairchild; I keep my ear to the ground, and to the skies; more than you've ever done. Do you know what they whisper?"
"I...don't have time..."
"That it's done. All...falling down. Most of you...you don't even know; you just go on and on, as you've always done...not even wondering why..."
"I...I wonder why. But...I don't have time..."
"I can see that, Fairchild. I can smell that. And you're not having one of mine. None of you are, ever again."
Shambling back, towards the entrance.
"What? Simeon! You..."
"Go back home, Fairchild. Go back and rot. Oh, and if you do happen to hear the Choirs singing, try listening to what they sing about once in a while, eh?"
The man groaning as he struggles up the stairs, not noticing the shape perched on the roof above.
But I do. Not there, one moment; a jangle of bladed feathers, in the space of a blink, a heartbeat, and there it is.
The warning dying in my throat as it descends; as its wings unfurl, catching what little light there is, blinding me. Simeon doesn't scream; not given chance.
When vision returns, the angel sits in stained-red snow, toying with his head, plucking out his eyes with delicate fingers. What's left of the man lies strewn all around; patterns of meat and tinted fabric, no doubt making something beautiful, from a bird's eye view.
Not running, though every instinct in my body screams for it. Not turning away, though the sight of it is enough to hurt.
A thing of skinless flesh and shimmering metal, of razor and scalpel-blade wings, of fractured-mirror eyes, shards of stained glass protruding from its throat, dangling from the chains looped and fed through the skin of its arms, its chest, its back.
Smiling, as it turns to face me; a sudden, bird-like motion, as though it has spied a cockroach crawling on my face, a maggot squirming in my eyes.
Blood on its lips. Beautiful lips; those of a girl in lust.
The air around it...trembling in pain, parting, weeping with its every motion. Its presence...enough to make me feel as though flea and parasite surgeons swarm across my body, minutely slitting, unravelling...
Smiling. A smile too wide for its face, the skin splitting, seeping, its blood mingling with Simeon's in the snow.
"I...I know...he lied. He always does...always has...I knew...you were here."
Cocking its head to one side, cradling that clutched in its shimmering, serrated fingers.
We know. We hear your hymns. So beautiful, Fairchild; so sweet...
"I'm...I'm sorry; I know I shouldn't have..."
A sudden keening, sunlight lancing through my mind, agonising. For an instant, I sail there, amongst them; tossed and carried like a scrap of barely born meat, the Choirs at war over me, their matter raining down on the spires below.
A moment, but enough, enough...
When the sunlight fades, when the night and snow return, the angel, Simeon, the blood...all gone. And with them, every inch of fatigue; every sore and laceration, every imperfection. Raising fingers to my face...different, from before; cares and lines of age sheared smooth, angles refined.
Laughing, the blonde boy who'd spared me such smouldering looks before waiting at the foot of the stairs, eager to be away from the point of his Father's sacrifice.
So compliant, almost silent. Following with a dog's unquestioning loyalty; barely pausing to ask why or where.
Not some trick of the angel's; Simeon's work, the Father who'll no doubt return to them, by and by.
His name Jayden, given without asking, pausing to slip out of his shoes in the hallway, to shrug off his coat.
Lingering, awaiting my instruction.
"No need to feel awkward; you're my guest, here. Perhaps you'd like to wash up, then maybe some food?"
The boy's eyes alight at the prospect of feeding. How long since he's enjoyed a genuine meal, and not what scraps his less privileged siblings can scavenge?
Smiling his thanks, padding up the stairs, still somewhat nervous.
"I'm...sorry. The bathroom..?"
"Oh. Straight at the top of the stairs; first door in front of you."
Suspicious, unused to being treated with any degree of respect, any kindness. No matter. Retiring to the kitchen, suddenly ravenous, setting out two plates of beef wellington, vegetables, roast potatoes... the beef and red wine reduction on to heat.
It doesn't take long. I don't disturb them; know how...intimate a process it can be.
No screams; the boy at least knows better than that. At one point, before I hear feet on the bathroom floor the door clicking open, a fluttering, a flock of birds on the ceiling, chattering to one another with metal and broken glass voices.
Then, a voice, slurred and uncertain, from lips it hasn't used before, a strange and alien tongue:
Slumping down the stairs, almost stumbling, leaving him to it, though every paternal instinct inside screams, screams for me to go to him, to help him.
Holding on, though forgetting seethes and coils inside like mist; an eager, smothering fog, desperate to erase all thought or memory of the work I've done, the hymns I've orchestrated...
For the first time in a very, very long time, reluctant to let them go; wanting to hold on; to know myself, during this season of blissful forgetting.
Finding him naked in the living room, grasping the door lintel with slick, bloodied fingers.
Still pale, still not quite set in his new skin; his frame slightly askew, the prominent angles of his hips, his ribs, askance.
Going to him, taking his arms, levering him down to the sofa.
"There we go."
The boy glaring up at me, working his jaw, as though it has been recently broken and poorly reset.
"How are you feeling?"
Mouth opening, drool trailing down his chin. Suggestions of blood around his crown, his shoulders; seams not quite yet knit.
"Give it a moment; you're barely set, son. And don't worry about the mess upstairs; I'll...I'll get it cleaned up. Meanwhile, we'd better sort you out some clothes."
Plenty that fit; bags full, in the upstairs wardrobe; clothes of every size and style. Letting him choose, when he's feeling a little more coherent, when he can form an identifiable word or two:
"...he...he came...to me..."
"I know. I know he did..."
"I know, I know; you don't have to explain yourself to me, believe me. Or do you think I was born with this face?"
Smiling at him, the boy blinking, smiling back.
"No. Now, get yourself dressed, and come through to the dining room. I expect you're hungry. I'm fucking ravenous."
As pleasant a meal as I've enjoyed in some time, rare, rare these days that I have someone to enjoy it with. The boy strangely endearing company, not fractious or splintered, not irritating or thorn-like.
Watching, as he awkwardly struggles with his knife and fork, as he clumsily cuts each piece of food into the tiniest, bite-sized scraps. Still so much a child; still learning the skin I've brought him.
The fog receding, as we eat, as we speak: as the night draws in, and the snow deepens. Perhaps no more forgetting, after today; perhaps that is the angel's gift; a reward for my charity.
Smiling at the idiot sentiment of it; a long time since I've been prey to such. But happy for it; that the little, quiet lie of a man with his trains and silent smiles won't be returning, any time soon.
That there's beauty in this house again, and new hymns we might sing together.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.