Thursday, May 18, 2006


Picton is Butters (a short story)

June was nearing its end and Picton sat in the potting shed, deciding what he should do next. Since June is a month of continuing growth, there was nothing to do in the garden that could be finished. Nothing slows, nothing withers, nothing dies; Picton couldn't hack any dead roots to the ground, or lop heads off daffodils. So Picton made a decision to do nothing at all. He would let nature take its course, bide his time a little.

He reached over to the boiling kettle, whose limey interior gave off a sluggish and fusty smell, and poured a little water into a cup of instant coffee. The coffee-powder was cheap, the water was stale, and the resulting mixture tasted of corrosion, but Picton was merely drinking to stall time. Farrah would be back after the weekend, and Picton did not intend to carry out any of the tasks that the permanent gardener, writing a list on a scrap of paper with a stub of pencil, had assigned him.

He did not know how to sow carrot seeds or tomato plants: nobody had ever told him. Nobody had even told him which seeds were which. They sat there in old baked-bean cans whose labels had been soaked off, and on each of them was scrawled its Latin name in black marker pen. All looked the same to a layman's eye, all trying to peer upwards towards the light. Picton had decided on a plan to steal all the seeds on his last day at the manor and replace them with slug pellets.

Farrah had also told him to watch out for any suckers on the roses and to pull them off, or even de-root them. Picton had no idea what this meant. He had a feeling that a sucker might be some sort of grub, perhaps a large caterpillar, but he certainly wasn't going to spend a summer's day peeling them off Madame's roses.

He drank his coffee. Rain began to fall outside. Picton poked his head out of the shed-door and looked up to the sky with his mouth gaping open, letting the raindrops hit the back of his throat. Beads of rain filtered over his unshaven, childish face, and slid through his matted, oily hair. He shut his eyes and dreamed.


Madame was indoors. A rainbow was developing outside, but all Madame could see was hoarfrost through the opaque bay window. A boy was dreaming by the potting shed, but Madame did not see him at first, as she peered past the shed to the conifers at the back of the garden. Madame sat in silence all day and every day in her upright chair, all angles and bones. Her cheeks were carved deeply with age and her shoulders had sunk like disused pools. All Madame's staff, her cooks and servants, tailors and florists, carers and befrienders, were under strict orders never to talk to her. For years she had lived under the pretence that she spoke no English. The only French she could speak or read was pidgin, yet she sat all day and all night in her upright chair, reading Moliere and the older masters in their original language. All day, servants dashed in and out with tea and coffee and biscuits and finger sandwiches, handing these refreshments to Madame before retiring quickly. And all day Madame sat and ate and drank, looking out the window at the world outside, speaking to no one. As she sipped at her morning tea, her eyes turned to the dreaming boy.

It's not Farrah, the usual gardening man. His wife had died recently, Madame had heard one of the girls telling another in hushed tones. But Madame had heard. She had said nothing to Farrah, she did not know the man. He must have got another man in to help out. Not so much a man either, more of a boy. Eighteen, perhaps. I don't think he wants to be here. Rather a pretty chap, holds himself well, awkward like a young man should be. And looking up at the sky - what's he doing that for? I suppose I might too if I could see it. But strange for this gangly youth to be peering up at the sky when it's raining. Perhaps one of his folks has died too. His mother or his girlfriend. My, what a beautiful chap he is.


It is eight pm, and Picton is running through strands of traffic, over sleeping policemen, through an artificial fog of cool, frigid air to where the top of The Building peeps through the cloud. Communication lines wind round and round over Picton's head, their fizzing fibres powering the city and its bright lights.

There had been a disaster in the outskirts of the city. A riot had got out of control, and a mob of construction men had conspired to blow up a building. The construction men were all dead, but the exercise had not been in vain. The authorities, said their spokesman, were reeling from the shock of the tragedy. Reforms would have to be made. The evening news was dedicated to the story; cameramen danced around each other, all trying to get the best shot of the crumbled breeze-blocks and mangled limbs. Reporters searched for ever more inflated adjectives to describe the situation.

Picton kept running; he wanted no part of it. But as he reached The Building he felt a bell chime against his heart. It struck twice and Picton stopped still, looked at the madness around him and turned to the entrance.

On the seventh floor of The Building was a glass walkway that crossed the main street. Picton walked across the glass floor, hovering over the traffic. Between his feet he saw rescue services adding to the chaos and the lights. Two men in orange plastic jackets hurried to take another victim onto a stretcher. The mother of a victim's friend grimaced into a camera, telling her exclusive story of how the tragedy had unfolded, to a journalist whose heart-rate multiplied at the thought of such a marvellous scoop.

All was commotion below him, but encased in his glass capsule Picton heard only silence. The darkness of early evening had set in and the occasional swarm of dust buzzed towards him, and was dispersed by the tunnel. He felt himself becoming elevated; the scene below him became more distant.

As the dark became darker and Picton became higher, his attention turned from the bustle below him on the street towards the horizon where he saw plains and fields and highways outside of the city. The scene appeared computer-generated: each field was surrounded by a square of highway, each of which was lined by an avenue of neon lights on each side. Hundreds upon hundreds of light-enclosed fields stretching and multiplying across and over the horizon. He focused in on one car about thirty miles away, cruising towards the coast, the driver nodding his head to an old chart hit. Picton watched the streams of lights, the continual straightness of the roads and tracks and houses, and saw it all lit up by a nearby moon. The moon seemed to smile upon the world, and upon the scene of method and mayhem over which he was suspended, and Picton knew he had to walk towards that beam of light and smile down with it.


The rain poured down. From inside of the house Madame looked out of the window through the blur and confusion of the rain at the boy, his head pointing up at the sky, his eyes shut. The water poured through his hair, and over his face. His shirt was clinging to his thin body and the wet loosened his trousers from his tiny waist. Madame watched him, thinking of a young dreamer she had once loved. He too had been an outdoors type; his mind looked upwards to the sky too. But he had died in a war, so no more thought of him.

Shedding no tears, she sipped her tea.


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