All The Fun Of the Unfair
With a cast iron wife as cold as old tripe, Blatch often tried to reach into his past in search of a warm kiss or two.
Triumphant rust has crawled across her face, blotching her one eye and completely obscuring her soul. Each evening, on his return from the dust works, he would sit in their cramped house, head turned to one side, gazing into distant dead days.
There was a time ... . Yes, there had been a time when he was young and had been loved. He remembered her face so well. And the park where they would meet under the drooping trees.
He could remember the place well enough but not her name. His mind was like the oldest machines at the factory; creaking and groaning, working only intermittently. Who was she? And where was she in time?
Dimly, achingly it came to him, swimming through the murk of his memory. That summer now long lost struggled to the scummy surface. Yet still no name. Ah, well.
It would require a feat of inner strength, a victory of the imagination, but Blatch knew he could do it. If he wired his memory into the yearning machinery of his heartache, he could provide enough power, he knew it. He'd go back. Back ... and never come forth again!
Her smile. Her face. Those perfect, symmetrical kisses, full of hot breath, tobacco-scented yet minty clean. That was what he wanted. All of it.
One soulless Sunday, he sat. In the broken glasshouse in the overgrown garden, he could get some peace. He screwed up his face and his stomach in concentration.
If he could focus on where they first met. But after some moments, he remembered that he'd forgotten ... years before. "Damn! I have no excuse for my own excuses," he mused.
But he did know what town it was. He remembered that, at least.
He sat and strained his soul and memory. Bright flashes of nothing burst in his head. He would go back now, he could feel it. The small squares, leaning clock towers and wide marshes of Felompsy were within his grasp, if not yet under his feet. "Come on. Come on."
Then he felt as if he was floating. Just a little more effort, he told himself. That's it! The darkness began to clear but only a little. He became aware of an overwhelming odour of a very human sort.
Something wet and unpleasant slid under his feet and he put out a hand to steady himself. Then it struck him like a rubber mallet in the face. That was why the gloom wasn't clearing - he was underground. He arrived in the ancient sewers that drained into the seaward marshes.
He held his nose and edged forward. If he could find a ladder ...
Blatch had spent many a happy childhood hour in these very sewers with his fellow 'rat boys'. And there was always a special prize at the end of the day for anyone who found anything dead. Anything, at all.
Once he'd found a dead soul, limp and filmy and flimsy, lying on a low ledge. But his only prize had been a greasy, hobnailed kicking from the departed's loitering relatives.
"Ah yes," Blatch sighed, thinking that his sense of smell must have been less well-developed in those days.
Finally he exited the stench and clinging memories by way of a fortuitous ladder and grating. He climbed out stiffly and was pleased to see he was in the right street. His memory was serving him well now, he thought, as he clapped his hands together. And the weather was playing along, too.
Squelching forward in his stool-stained slippers, he was delighted to see that he'd arrived in that vermilion July way-back-when. "When? When things were better, that's when! When things were younger and so was I ... "
He laughed, almost danced, feeling like a child again, as the onion-scented armpit of Summer welcomed him back.
The haunted fairground, filled with chuckles and pink delights, stood before him. That was where she was waiting, he now knew, and imagined her flying high on one of the more delicious rides, excited and filled with love. For him, he hoped. For him, again.
He padded wetly through the entrance arch of bone, spit and cardboard, fashioned in the shape of a gaping whale's mouth. Phantoms of happiness and desire, loud and brightly painted, crowded around and ahead of him. But Blatch knew he had to ignore them, press on, find her. He knew she was here.
Pink delights and sweet pickled laughs jostled him here and there, pushed him back and forth, tugged him to and fro. But he kept his eyes peeled and his feet firmly planted in his soggy slippers.
Finally, he saw her standing by the Brandy Floss stall. His heart nearly stopped rotating when he saw her face, so pale and so perfect, lit by the afternoon sun. The sky seemed greener, the grass bluer, and he felt so young again, so filled with love for her.
Then he noticed that she was talking to a Sky Sailor with huge metals wings folded across his back. And she was laughing.
Squelching closer, Blatch could hear him brag: "Oh yes, we go quite high you know ... quite a long, long way up. I even stroked the moon once." This wasn't the way he remembered it.
No, this wasn't how it was. She'd been alone, he was certain. Alone. Until he came along. He wriggled his fingers through the tottering piles of old memories. Things scittered here and there, seeking to evade his unpleasantly probing digits, until finally he gave up with a heavy sigh of resignation.
It was time to intervene. Yes, that was the only answer. He'd force things to be the way they were. He wasn't going to let time trick him out of his prize. And nobody was going to steal his perfect summer, his sweetest love.
Blatch dashed forward and grasped the pompous sky sailor around the knees, bringing him down. The man partly recovered and started clawing at Blatch's face. For minutes they rolled in the earth and the Earth rolled under them.
A small group of spectators gathered, while others yelped and ran off to pursue their own fancies.
A bout of eye gouging and testicle tugging ensued, leaving them both sore and exhausted, until finally Blatch flipped himself round and trod on the man's head. The uniformed figure under Blatch's boot lay still. Chuckling to himself, Blatch had no time to enjoy his glorious victory as he was lifted bodily from atop his trophy.
The woman of his dreams had him by his collar and was dangling him off the ground. "Blatch! It is you, isn't it?"
He struggled to get his feet back on the ground and looked up into his beloved's face. 'Yes! yes, it is I ... I've come to find you. To save you. To love you!!"
Then, as he looked up at his beloved, he saw how she would change, how the years would alter her and ...
"You!" He let out a whimper of despair as he realised that she - his wonderful long-ago Summer sweetheart - and his wife - his hard-hearted stiff-backed grey jailer - were one and the same. And that time has eaten up his memories, chewed them over, sucking out all the juice, before spitting them out into the mud. "But I ... that is ... it isn't ... OooOooh, no!"
The woman's fingers touched his cheek gently before lifting his chin. "Blatch, you fool. Did you think time would just stand still? Did you think we were immortal?"
Unimpressed by the braggart victor, the spectators had started to drift away.
Blatch blinked, large tears rolling down his chubby stubbled cheeks. "No. Well, that is .. I'd hoped .... things could ..." He sobbed. "I'd hoped for .... more."
The woman led Blatch to the bloodied figure of the Sky Sailor. "Look at him," she said, gently. "Don't you recognise him?" She bent down to flick a blob of mud from the elaborate brass insignia on the front of his uniform so that the tangle of wings and lightning bolts became clearly visible. Then she reached up to tug at an identical blemished badge worn by Blatch on the front of his grubby bath robe.
"Don't you even recognise yourself any more, Blatch?" She smiled at him sadly.
He didn't recognise himself, he now knew. It was true. He often wondered who that was in the mirror, imitating him as he shaved ... whenever he bothered to.
"I know you don't recognise me anymore," she said. "Perhaps you need new glasses."
His wife knelt by the figure lying in the dirt for a moment, then turned back to Blatch. "You'll live," she said and he chuckled with embarrassment.
She leaned forward and kissed his dirty, wrinkled brow. "You were a silly vain young man. I wasn't taken in for a minute," she said. "And you haven't got any better over the years. But I love you all the same. "
Blatch coughed, looked up at her and smiled. "I'm sorry."
She smiled back. "We won't go on forever, you know. Promise you'll be happy to die by my side, old fool?"
He nodded, realising he was too old for all this jumping around in time. Especially on the evidence of the faulty clockwork of his memory. He took one last look around at his summer. The wind was colder than he'd remembered and, for a moment, the sun was obscured by the smoke from the crematoria at the edge of town.
"Home," he was forced to admit, as he lifted the iron sewer cover and began to climb inside.
BIO: Mark Howard Jones lives in Cardiff, Wales. This is only a short distance from Caerleon, where Arthur Machen was born, but the journey takes a detour through both The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. His new book 'Songs From Spider Street' is available now from screamingdreams.com.