By Harry Gallon
Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, holding the padlock, sucking the key. Before she crossed the garden to the workshop she stood by the fireplace, looked out of the window and wondered what her youngest son was doing after school. Before she stood by the fireplace and looked out of the window she’d poured a glass of wine and then gone upstairs to her bedroom to get the workshop door key. Only she knew it was there, tucked under the old newspaper lining her drawer, weighed down by the vibrator wrapped in a sock that was no longer a pair.
Stephanie signed out of the psychiatric wing and walked slowly back up the hill, past oncology, past the bright yellow medical waste bins, past the new student accommodation that yesterday she’d read were beginning to slide down the hill, even though they’d only been built in the summer. Several undergrads were smoking cigarettes by the pub next to the outpatient clinic – a gray portacabin that’d been forgotten and left to rot.
Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, breathing slowly, savouring the smell of the workshop air like you savour the smell of the sea. The workshop doorway was low because it was built into a larger set of double doors. The keys tastes like blood, thought Stephanie. She thought that every time she stood with one foot on the wood at the base of the door, one hand being caressed, as she half-entered the room, by cobwebs that were weighed down with dust. Stephanie breathed through her nose and looked at the grease gun.
The main hospital building was old. It looked more like a Victorian train station, thought Stephanie, as she followed the main road past the garden centre, the lawnmowers, the chain smoking paramedics and the wheezing security guard. It looked more like an old station for an abandoned railway line. At least the psychiatric wing was relatively new, not red brick and chip board, not hired-out portaloos, thought Stephanie, walking slowly. It was quicker to go through the cemetery. But it was also the second time her eldest son had been in the psychiatric wing, and she had the afternoon off.
A blob of black grease had been gradually leaking out of the end of the grease gun. Lava flow. Stephanie had noticed it a while ago, but hadn’t bothered to wipe it up. The blob had been leaking out for so long it’d become covered in dust and turned brown. All its moisture would eventually soak up and it’d turn hard. Then she could pick it off, roll it in her fingers, drop it in the pond to see if it floated. Stephanie tried to forget the pond. It needed work. And the rhododendron bush had nearly doubled in size over the summer. Stephanie could see her breath. She took a sip of wine, and entered the workshop.
It was quicker to walk through the cemetery. And nicer. The cemetery was full of wild flowers and long grass. It was dug into the hill, which was rich and loose, rolled over and over like tired sand dunes, caught the wind across the valley and teased the nostrils of mourners and commuting student doctors with the smell of the sea. It wasn’t fear which made Stephanie walk around it. Stephanie was used to graves by now. She was used to the walk to and from the car, which she always parked at the top of town, and the psychiatric wing. The gravestones are still comforting, thought Stephanie, though Luke had died years ago.
When she stepped through the low doorway into the workshop, her shoulder caught the bike chain that hung on the wall by the door. The thick bike chain. The grey bike chain. Like the blob of grease, it’d it was covered with dust, and Stephanie smiled when she saw that, as always, there was a faint, slightly sticky black smudge on her jumper. She touched the chain, gently at first, with just her fingertips. It didn’t move. Then she took the whole thing in her hand, and it moved a little. It was a heavy chain. A motorbike chain. There were several others like it, jammed with dust and hanging up from nails that her husband had hammered into wooden blocks on the workshop walls. When she let the chain go and opened her hand, the creases of her skin were black too, and she held her hand up to her nose.
Stephanie sat in the car with the door open and one foot on the ground. It hadn’t been a particularly good visit. It could never be a particularly good visit. Stephanie had walked through reception to sign in. They recognised her. She knew they had to recognise a lot of mothers, too, and she thanked an orderly who’d told her that her son was in the courtyard. Stephanie walked out through the big glass doors to the lawn, and sat with her son on the grass. The reception area had wooden panelling, and looked like an old community swimming pool, thought Stephanie. All it was missing was the shallow foot pool for containing verrucas and spreading athletes’ foot. Stephanie’s son was cross-legged in the grass, smoking a cigarette and pulling the heads of daisies. ‘Hello you,’ said Stephanie, and he smiled, but didn’t look up.
Stephanie held her hand up to her nose for 16 seconds. Then she took it away again. Then she held it up again, smelled the grease deeper, then had a sip of wine. She’d left the bottle in the kitchen. Her hand smelled like Luke. She swallowed more wine then steadied the chain, which had begun to swing. Stephanie turned and looked further into the workshop, towards the small wood burning stove. There was a chair there, next to an old pile of logs, dusty, like everything else in the workshop, and dry. I should burn those, thought Stephanie, longing for smoke.
Stephanie’s car was parked next to the entrance to the cemetery, which was a large metal gate painted black and a small brick gatehouse with a sign that said owned and maintained by the council. There was an old horse chestnut tree there too, halfway through shedding its leaves. Conkers lay squashed on the road, their shells getting less and less green. The leaves had been swept into piles and left on a patch of grass by the gatehouse. Their shapes were imprinted in tanned little patches on the concrete. The first time Stephanie’s eldest son had been in the hospital’s psychiatric wing, she wasn’t sure if being so close to the cemetery would be good for him. But Robert had been cremated too, though more conventionally than Luke. All that was left of her husband and brother-in-law were slightly discoloured shapes on the floor. Stephanie shook it off. She always shook it off, because it was never a good visit. Her son, like his Uncle Robert, had barely spoken at all.
The chair wasn’t covered in dust like everything else in the workshop. Stephanie walked over to it carefully, past the skeletons of unfinished motorcycles, past workbenches and hydraulic jacks and unopened packages addressed to Luke that contained air filters and exhaust pipes. She wanted to pick up the chair. It was one of those old church chairs. Wooden. The kind that line the nave, with room to hold a hymn book, in the unlikely event that the congregation grows so massively that there aren’t enough pews left to seat everyone. Stephanie always left the chair by the wood burning stove, where the kettle was. And she always picked it up, but not to move it. It was as though she wanted to weigh it, as if the older she got, the lighter the chair would feel.
Stephanie only smoked when she was stressed, which was often. She’d smelled the cigarette on her son as soon as she’d sat down with him on the grass. She kept a pack of Marlboro Lights in her handbag, would smoke them out in the garden, by the rhododendron bush, at night. Both her sons knew. While she sat in the car her mouth felt like an ashtray. First cigarette of the day. First nicotine high. As she indicated to pull away, a police car slowed down to let her out. That poor girl, Ruth, whose father had abused her, had come over and sat with them in the courtyard. Stephanie had brought her son a book. ‘What’s that?’ Ruth had asked. It was a collection of American short stories. Stephanie’s son looked vacant. Stephanie said, ‘I’m sure he’ll let you borrow it, Ruth.’ Oh, she remembered Ruth. Her son remembered, too. He turned to them and said, ‘Can you even read, Ruth?’ Fucking little shit, though Stephanie, as she coasted down the hill past the cemetery, one eye on the police car behind, unsure if the nicotine had made her over the limit to drive.
On a hook behind the wood burning stove hung some overalls. They were Luke’s overalls. Stephanie had tried so many times to wash them, but he’d always grabbed them out of the pile and hung them back up. The chair weighed the same, and Stephanie put it back down in exactly the same place. She reached over the stove and took the overalls off the hook. Then she sat on the chair and lay the overalls on her lap. She held the collar up to her face, smelled the worn-in sweat from the back of his neck, and unbuttoned her trousers.
Their cat, Rodney, had gone missing again. Ruth was sitting beside her son. She was sobbing. ‘I’ve been up and down the village,’ said Stephanie, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I’ve put up all the same posters again. Posted statuses on Facebook asking if anyone’s seen him, though no one’s replied yet.’
‘That’s good though,’ said Ruth.
Her son said, ‘I don’t know why you bother.’ He’d never liked that cat.
Stephanie shook her head. She was angry. She was always angry, at this point, driving down the hill from the psychiatric wing of the hospital. She wasn’t sure if it was the traffic on the one-way system in the centre of town, or if it was just how much her eldest son reminded her of Robert.
Luke had been her mechanic. That’s how they’d met. When they were young. When Robert, Luke’s younger brother, had been away, in his first year of university. Stephanie had been driving to work. She’d stopped at a red light, and when she started again there was a deep, loud voice, accompanied by a guttural scraping sound. It lasted for 30 yards before she stopped the car and a police officer who’d been passing knocked on her window. ‘Think your exhaust’s fallen off, love,’ said the police officer. ‘Sounds like a bloody tank.’ She gave Stephanie a piece of string to tie it up with, and Stephanie drove four miles to the nearest garage. There’d been sparks. At the garage, there was a young mechanic. There’d been sparks. Stephanie slid her hand into her knickers.
Robert hadn’t been in the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Robert hadn’t needed to talk to anyone. Not even after the crash. And it wasn’t that her eldest son looked like Robert. Why would he? He looked so much like Luke when he was born. Everyone said so. But Stephanie had never been able to shake the feeling that he was becoming more like his uncle. She felt it more after the visits. It’s probably just in your head, thought Stephanie. It’s not like he accidentally killed anyone, is it? She turned off the one-way system and pulled up outside the Co-op. She went inside to buy a bottle of chardonnay. The man queuing in front of her was reading a local newspaper. The headline said new halls fall: students in uproar. Stephanie began to laugh. She didn’t feel angry anymore. After Ruth had walked off, no longer crying, her son had tried, once again, to convince her to start dating. He’d taken her phone, while they sat on the grass, and started downloading a dating app. But there wasn’t enough storage space left. ‘Fuck sake,’ her son said. ‘You’ve got to delete some stuff, mum.’ When Stephanie walked back to the car, it had started to rain.
They’d bought their first house together after their eldest was born. Luke wanted somewhere that had enough space to build his own workshop. Somewhere close to the sea. The garden was a mess. The remains of an old panel fence decayed gracefully at the end, by an elder tree. The lawn was full of weeds and wire and pieces of plastic that had broken of old toys. The lining of the pond was cracked. There was a large rhododendron bush in the middle, which they’d tried digging up several times but which always seemed to grow back. It’d become a family ritual. They’d have a bonfire every year, or used to. Eventually, Luke built the workshop behind it, so that when it grew big in the summer, its branches almost covered one side of the large double doors from where he’d wheel out the motorbikes to test them. Luke hadn’t got round to painting the inside of the workshop. He wanted to work inside it instead. The day it was ready, Stephanie had been gardening. She popped the cheap bottle of Prosecco she’d bought at the Co-op on the way back from work. Their first son was lying in his pushchair in the garden. Stephanie said, ‘I’m proud of you,’ to Luke, who put down his glass and kissed her. He put his greasy hands on her shoulders, her neck, her cheeks, and they conceived another child against the wall.
Stephanie laughed on the drive back home. She didn’t really know why she was laughing. It wasn’t the dating app thing. She wasn’t laughing at her son’s situation, or how much she just fucking hated him sometimes, or how much more she hated not being able to help him. The first time it’d happened he’d disappeared for three days. None of his friends knew where he’d gone. The police found him on the edge of a reservoir. The second time her youngest son had been with him, at home. Something had happened. Some episode. Her youngest had called the ambulance. Stephanie had been working a late shift, and spent the night in the hospital, talking, again, with specialists. She came home to find her youngest son clearing up the glass from a window that’d been broken. ‘He just went mental, mum.’ There was blood on the floor. Muddy footprints. A spade by the back door and a square of almost perfectly replaced turf at the base of the rhododendron bush. Stephanie sighed. Her youngest son didn’t tell her about the cat.
She moved her hand slowly, wanting it to last. She held the overalls more firmly against her nose, and breathed in. She breathed in hard, savouring the smell of old sweat, the damp of the grease which the cold of the workshop would never truly allow to set. It felt heavy. She wanted to taste him. The overalls kept her pinned to the chair. She curled her toes then stretched her legs out as far as they would go. She held the collar more firmly against her nose and mouth until they choked her.
It had begun to rain quite heavily. Stephanie had always been a cautious driver, especially since the crash. And it had been such a violent crash. There hadn’t been any ashes to scatter. What’d been left of Luke after the car had stopped rolling had been incinerated in the passenger seat, while Robert lay unconscious and broken at the side of the road. She didn’t blame him. How could she now, anyway? After what then happened, he was clearly just as much of a victim. Stephanie took the country roads carefully, avoiding large piles of leaves in case they were hiding potholes, pressing the horn for three seconds when she went round sharp bends, flashing her lights. The sky had become a disorienting pink, the air thick and cloying, as though, when she finally pulled into the driveway, stopped and opened the door, she was constantly in the presence of a dead body. Stephanie stepped over the junk mail behind the front door. She took off her scarf, put the wine on the kitchen table next to the glass jar of dried lavender, then removed her coat. The basket under the stairs where Rodney occasionally slept was still empty, but at least the window to the garden had been replaced.
Stephanie breathed heavily. She sat, slouched, in the wooden chair by the wood burning stove in the workshop. Her eyes were closed. When she opened them she saw that it was getting dark outside. Her breath had slightly misted the windows. She refastened her trousers, stood, and hung the overalls on the hook on the wall. She walked over to the workbench and touched the dusty blob of grease. Still wet, she thought, and smiled. Just then a light went on in the kitchen window. Stephanie saw her youngest son leave his school bag on the side then fill up the kettle. Stephanie finished her glass of wine, put the glass back down then picked up a gardening fork. When she stepped back through the workshop doorway her youngest son was standing at the other end of the garden. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’ he said.
‘Just thought I’d have another crack at that rhododendron bush,’ said Stephanie. She looked at the bush. It was smaller than she remembered. ‘Looks like someone’s already had a go.’
Her youngest son coughed. ‘Bit dark for that,’ he said. ‘Come inside for some tea instead.’
* * *
Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, his next novel, is out this year, also on Dead Ink Books.