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The Mechanic's Curse

Short Stories



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The Mechanic's Curse brings together Clive Gilson's collected short stories in a single volume. These stories have been previously published in anthologies and online magazines. Clive's love of magical realism from writers such as Angela Carter, and the glories of traditional folk and faery tales shines through.

These stories in particular mix the macabre and the fey and tradition with a loving touch.

These are intimate tales, focusing on broad but subtle themes and personal recollections. Clive Gilson's stories continue to link recurring themes of fantasy with urban and future decay – splintered glass, dust motes and cracked plaster; the loss of loved ones, of the ability to remember; black and white movies of the mind; shafts of golden light shattered by war; haunted memories and the night darks.


Glasshouse Tango

Broken glass underfoot. A heel twisting. A booted heel. Cuban. Grinding slowly, twisting, pressing down upon sharp but brittle fragments. He listens to the sounds of deliberate destruction. He hears his own breathing, soft and slow, beneath which he revels in the scratchy soundtrack of glass turning to powder. He looks up. Above his head he sees a splintered wooden roof truss, leached grey by sun and rain, made soft and spineless by ice and thaw and spore and worm. He smiles and walks slowly forward down the central of three aisles. The sound of denims, tight and boot-cut, brushing the skeletal remains of wooden glasshouse benches thrills him. He loves the solitude of the derelict. He adores the way that he and the sparrows and the rats and prowling cats can lay claim to a space once thriving with flora and green human thumbs, a place now effectively moribund. In the heart of the city, bounded by clogged arterial roads, constricted by the particulate cholesterol that forms diesel soaked platelets in veins, he can, despite a midriff heading south, still squeeze through relatively small gaps in chain link and board, losing himself in these abandoned places. There are always abandoned spaces if you know where and how to look for them. The city positively metastasises with them, an endless proliferation of corrupted cells wrinkling and decaying as neighbourhoods and districts fight through their endless cycles of dereliction and renewal. He has an Oyster card. He roams at will.
When he awoke earlier this Saturday morning he had felt instinctively that today would be a good day for trespassing. In spite of an intermittently wheezing cough, a remnant of thirty odd years on filter tips and cheroots, he felt generally and contentedly positive this morning. He decided that he would visit his new gem, his most recent shift along the twisting paths of West London’s suburban DNA. Choosing the Piccadilly Line for a short hop towards the west he had taken the tube from Acton Town to Boston Manor, and skipping lightly across the main road opposite the station he had dropped down through streets full of solid, nineteen-thirties, bay-fronted, semi-detached houses towards the Manor Park boundary walls. At the back of the park, down where the scrubs still lay undeveloped behind the crumbling concrete block-work of an abandoned windscreen wiper factory, there lay the remains of an urban nursery. He had long ago scoured the factory bones, and felt no inclination to visit those rusting, rain and piss pooled halls today. His fascination lately focussed on the skeletal remains of these old glasshouses. His obsession consumed the time and dust caked bones of a memory, of a summer and autumn colour that, despite the fading years, was still brighter in his mind than any current shades of existence.
He breathes in deeply, drawing the aromas and chemical components of damp earth and late summer drowsiness deep within, and lifts his heel from the powdered glass underfoot. He looks around, counting the dirt crusted terracotta pots on a set of slatted wooden benches running along the left side of the glasshouse’s rib-like wooden framework. Seven pots, all still upright and only lightly chipped, two of them full of dry, grey earth, trailing the brittle white stems of long dead plants, stems that crumble to the touch. Seven pots. The thick layer of compost and dust and debris on the workbench tops remains pristine in its dereliction. Nothing has been disturbed. It is over a week since his last visit and he worries that some other person might step through the shattered door frame and contaminate his memories with their own sepia tinged half-truths. He is relieved. All is safe and sound. There is no spoiling, not today, not yet. He is alone and the glasshouse is as yet an untouched crystal prism through which he splits the light of the world solely according to his own laws of physical abstraction.
Above him, hanging from rusty nails the raggedy remnants of shading blinds hang dirt streaked and grey, rotten through, and only truly held aloft by the strength of spider webs and seams of thickening, blackening grease and dust. There is stillness here, down behind the old factory, and he imagines that this local microclimate contributes directly to the blinds’ frayed survival in a place where the seeming permanence of plate glass has already fallen and shattered. Perhaps, he thinks, the glass is more attractive to urban breakers, to the lymphocytic youths who infest diseased buildings when the infection of dereliction is still novel. There would, he supposes, be a purpose in throwing stones, that in the shattering of things these youths act as urban antibodies and serve to hasten concrete renewal. He can just about remember his own youth and can still take pleasure in imagining a crack and a tinkle, a smash and a delicate refraction. He instinctively understands though that in pulling down these blinds now the only gratification that anyone would receive would be a simple and grotesque smothering in dust and bird shit and spider eggs. It is precisely because of that outcome that he feels happy here, happy in the knowledge that the glass breakers have had their fill and moved on elsewhere. He is happy that as yet the moneyed princes of urban shade and shift have not turned their gaze his way. He is convinced that this is truly a forgotten place. It is his place. His place of memory.
He walks along the central aisle towards the middle of the glasshouse. He passes more pots, overturned and frost cracked despite their faded labels claiming Cretan origin, shattered in places, grinding away to red dust and mixing into the fading grey powders that were once glass roof panels. He steps over the crumpled remains of black plastic seed trays that litter the walkways and the spaces underneath the workbenches. A green gardening glove rots slowly, half turned inside out beneath the wooden racking. Glass and dirt and weeds bloom in the cracked concrete troughs and paths and accumulations of old topsoil, manure and John Innes composts. In a place where the original purpose is so clearly derelict, it amuses him that in this space where flowers once blossomed in neat rows and in managed orders there is now nothing left but black dust. As with his cats and rats and sparrows, the Mother God of planet Earth has a peculiar way of reclaiming formerly manicured spaces with such chaotic and vibrant maternal love.
He too has a reclaimed space, just along the aisle. It is right here in front of him. In the middle of the glasshouse he has moved the central row of benches and racking to either side, closing off the outer aisles, and he has placed a chair under the last remaining intact panels of glass in the roof. During a previous exploration of the site he found the chair buried under a tarpaulin in a hut at the far edge of the nursery compound, a slatted wooden foldaway chair with enough strength left in its metal frame to make it usable. On the back of the backrest are stamped the letters, “G.W.R.” This is, he thinks, at least the third age that this chair has known, and it seems fitting that having given up the hurly of the station platform, this chair now rests with memories as he does. Around the chair he has swept the space clean using the last bristles on a worn out broom also found in the hut at the edge of the nursery compound.
He sits and arranges himself, hands folded in his lap, his legs formally neat, his back straight. He waits for the dust that he has raised to settle on the autumnal air within this skeleton glasshouse, feeling the slight shift in atmospheric temperature under these few remaining glass panes. He takes one last look around the place, and is comforted to see that the rusted pipes and valves of the industrially specified irrigation system seem as solidly fused and pitted as ever. He hears bird song. The ubiquitous Buddleia bushes that have sprouted in and come to dominate the walled yard are sweetly occupied. He tunes into the faint wash of flying insect wings, and allows his sense of place and time to drift beneath the sounds of fauna busy with living. He self-hypnotises, relaxing into his past lives, and he smiles softly with the drift.
The memories that come are random at first. He drinks water too fast at the kitchen sink while his mother warns him about hot boys and heart attacks in a vain attempt to slow down his childish enthusiasms. He smiles inwardly. Crazy woman. A boy whips a towel across his bare legs in the shower at school. Stevie Schneider, youngest child of an American service family living down the street when he was ten years old, takes a bath in a new-build house that they had broken into one summer afternoon. Police Constable Nichols on the doorstep talking to his father. Breaking images. Older now. Sally. Dinner somewhere and she complements him on the fact that the silk lining of his jacket matches his shirt. Ephemera. A shimmering prologue. But then the curtain lifts and a different woman enters his dream space to stand silently beneath a proscenium arch. He can feel her rather than see her. The lights are yet low. She is shadow. He never says her name out loud.
He slowly pulls out from his jacket pocket a piece of A4 paper, folded neatly into quarters. It is an inkjet black and white print of the only digital image that he has of her, an image snapped during a brief afternoon interlude in Oxford. In landscape shades of grey she rests on her front, on her elbows, on a hotel double bed, naked, pen in hand, filling in the harder clues in the day’s Times Quick Cryptic. She is grinning at the camera lens, basking in the twin delights of a post-coital glow and the cracking of clues that he still cannot fathom. She is teaching him how to read these clues. He has spent these last year’s practising every day in homage to her. He has an obsessive streak. He has not yet unfolded the quartered page. He knows the picture better than his own reflection. She never changes now, never ages, whereas on those mornings when he remembers to shave he sees an ever more distant relative of the person that he once was when he pretended to be an intelligent man.
The reveal has become an absolute ritual. He opens the page along the short seam before the long. He smooths the picture out on his lap and opens his eyes the better to enter this glorious dreamtime with her. He smiles down at her, letting the memories flood forward into his visual cortex. Now she is standing there in front of a wooden dressing table mirror in that same hotel room with her hands on her hips. She wears a simple white blouse and jeans. Long henna-red hair flicks back and the look that she gives melts him even now, even here in the shattered glasshouse. Shared laughter. That slight twist of her left eye when she is utterly relaxed. And so the music starts. Birdsong morphs into the layered beauty of a Josquin du Pres Te Deum, with voices floating and melding in their devotion, voices that soar and cascade and lift the soul in pure and simple harmonic brilliance.
Almost as soon as those simple cherubic voices reach their crescendo so they start to fade away. The footlights of his mind’s stage flare briefly before settling into a soft, yellow glow. There is a cough in the imaginary stalls behind him. The soundtrack cuts abruptly to the dark shadows of the one true dance. Emerging from the blurred and bleeding edges of the music, seeping into a definite shape and form, she is there with him once more, but this time she wears a calf-length red dress, tight across her hips and waist and bosom. He stands on the stage, arms held out as if taking her into the dance, and slowly he bends from the waist, twisting, shoulders drifting languidly through slow-motion demonstrations of the moves. His feet remain fixed. He is a bobbing mannequin, a robotic, mechanically slowed version of a human dancer. He starts to feel the power and the sensuality of the dance and so he starts to move, both in mind and in body. He moves purposefully across the stage, just as he drifts slowly towards the left-hand glasshouse benches. He crosses the boards with her under a spotlight, fusing with her, soul and bone and flesh.
He listens intently as the tango builds. A simple guitar and a drum, paced and sensual, repeating overlapping patterns. In the listening, in that shared understanding, they begin their silently exclusive conversation. He leads and she follows, but in the nature of the dance their fusing imbues each of them with elements of the other. Just as their bodies touch and slide, sending shivers and thrills through him, so their minds fix on the rhythms and the steps, merging into one space where his lead is accepted and then shifted through subtle degrees of harmony. He connects again with her across the years and the miles, and that connection is an embrace, an eternal constant in his mind, and through that embrace, within the sphere of music that surrounds them both, he feels as though he is born again in the dance. There is no past or future now. There is just the flow. He can be intimate again. He and she understand. They are one again. They are dazzlingly connected.
At that exact moment, diffused and incorporeal, that perfect connection shatters, as it must inevitably do. In the soundscape-blackened space behind his eyes he feels her shift and become separate. They slow, leaving the rhythm to flow on around them, and he pulls her into a close embrace, desperate to make these final seconds last forever. He smells her red, henna-laced hair. He lifts his right hand and runs it across her brow and down the left side of her face, letting her curls drift through his pale and slender fingers. She turns to look to at him with that slightly lopsided grin that she always showed him in the afterglow. He feels his pulse quicken as she moves a hand across his chest, lacing a finger behind a shirt button. His left hand moves down towards that dip where the small of her back melds into the rise of her buttocks. He presses his palm into her body. In the midst of the breaking apart they take their final steps in the dance together, slow stepping through the dissonant drift of a parting kiss.
His lips part. A tear falls. He is back in real-time. The tear falls onto his flushed cheek and runs down a hollow curve towards his upper lip. He has tasted these tears too many times. Already she fades. He no longer has the strength to hold her in the dream space, not like he used to. He is a shallow vessel now, a broken pot, a dry bed in which the flowers of his youth have faded into brittle, bleached whites just like these last remaining stems in the shattered glasshouse. As the music winds down he hears those words. Always those same words. They are the tear-words. He opens his eyes, holding himself in mid-embrace, alone in the middle of the abandoned glasshouse. His heel twists in frustration, grinding a potsherd to grim red dust, an instantly dried bloodstain on the crumbling concrete floor. He feels her ghostly fingers slip from his. Her face fades back into that indistinct haze of long fingered memory.
“I can’t… can’t see you any more…” he whispers, and once again the guilt rises, clawing at his viscera, the guilt that is and will forever be spliced with his love for her. He has learned not to think about their dreams of Buenos Aires, dreams of African drumbeats and brothels and long nights in the heat and haze of impossible Argentinian summers. It’s all a cliché, of course, and he knows that. He also knows that he misses her every single day of his life. He knows that he was wrong in every way. He made a call and like so many before and since, it was plainly and simply wrong. That is the moment. That is always the moment when he knows, despite the bluster and the performance and the smoky shadow plays, that he is a broken thing.
The clichés burn brightly now. He lacks the strength to imagine with originality. He is a ghost of his former self, kept tethered to the physical world only by the drug delivered with her coming. He craves her presence. He flares brightly in her embrace. The withdrawal that hits him when the connection fades is almost unbearable. He is an empty man. His soul, like the glasshouse, is an abandoned space, dank, and dusty and covered in razor sharp shards of memory. He clings onto images of countless Miss Havisham's, images stolen from decades of films and television adaptations, as a shorthand way to describe his sense of self. He takes a slow walk back along the derelict path through the glasshouse and out through the broken fence, out and back towards the clatter and the bustle of the London Underground on a Saturday afternoon. He counts the steps as he walks, head down, hands thrust into his trouser pockets. He counts the steps just as he counts down the days, knowing that all things are numbered and that he is now the remainder, the lost fraction left over from an imperfectly balanced equation. The music has faded. His passion is spent. He is cold logic, an abstraction, a simple number, one among billions, no longer relevant as an individual, just an anonymous part of the sum, of the whole. He is a trespasser in place and time and memory.
He looks at his watch for the first time since he broke through the fence and entered the old nursery compound. It is nearly three in the afternoon. He wonders how time passes so quickly when all around him, when the days that he counts, seem to drag on and on and on. He remembers his morning optimism, his sense that the day would be a good day for trespassing. He shrugs and walks on. He supposes that when you anticipate the coming fix then all days feel good, and he allows himself a moment of respite. He is coming down. Things look bleak. He will stop at Adel’s on the way back from Acton Town station and buy an overpriced bottle of Yellowtail. He will watch a film with a glass of red and drift away. He will work on something else tomorrow. He will appear whole again. And as he does the things that need to be done during the slow crawl of other people’s days he will catch sight of faded white lace flitting along the edges of his unseen inner world.
There is always one last moment to overcome on these journeys into his past. He considers contacting her again. He knows where she is. It would be possible. But such a thing would require far more courage than he has ever possessed. As close as she might be, the distance between them is impossible to cross. He told her to go. He failed her. He was never brave enough to take that vital step forward. He was then, as he is now, fundamentally afraid.
Above him the clouds have thickened. Spots of rain begin to polka dot the pavement in front of him. One more heavy sigh from the Mother God. He uses up the last of his strength. He leaves his paramour to fade back into the glasshouse shadows just as he left her all those years ago, drifting and weightless, until his craving, until his desperate need of her memory, overcomes his cowardice. He reaches the station, stops and passes a hand through his thinning hairline. He needs that drink.

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