Grumpy: A Short Story by DK Newton (image: Margate Harbour)
It was Sunday morning and as every Sunday for the past fifteen years Henry sat in his armchair in the small living room of his ground-floor flat, reading his paper.
Capital letters an inch tall stretched across the front page: ‘THE DEAD ARE RISING’, then smaller, ‘Police Chief outlines action plan...’
He snorted, the police?! Do me a favour! They were useless at planning, or acting.
Loud music thumped its way, through the ceiling, into his flat. Henry’s mouth became a thin line of indignation. There was never a moment peace with those two living above his head.
He straightened the paper then began reading again.
Shouting broke through the music rhythmic thud-thud and bum-bum.
Every fiber in Henry’s body vibrated with powerless anger. All he wanted was a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday morning, was it too much to ask?!
The music stopped.
Henry read the first line of the second paragraph 'The cause of the outbreak is unclear, officials..'
A stream of profanities, coming from the upstairs flat, turned the air blue in Henry’s living room.
Horrid, horrid woman! He thought then everything went black.
Henry had died with his fists clenching the newspaper, and his face a silent expression of unbound venom.
Henry blinked then unclenched his fists, the pages slid down his knees and fanned around his feet. He blinked again, placed a hand in front of his mouth, nothing. He moved it down to his chest –still nothing.
Perhaps he ought to call his GP. He looked at the phone and decided against it; there were no pills that could restart his breathing, or heartbeat, and anyway that lousy doctor of his did not take call-outs on a Sunday.
He glanced down at the article he had been reading. He pushed himself up and shuffled to the phone. Henry punched the number in; after a few rings, he was presented with a number of options. He listened carefully, but none seem to apply to his current condition. So much for the police having plans in place!
The recording began listing options again, and Henry decided that he would be better off talking to a human being, rather than a machine. His finger slid, the automatic system chimed that the number had not been recognised, and to please select an option from the menu then cut him off. Henry groaned and dialed again. He pressed the buttons carefully, and was rewarded by a feminine voice advising him that his call was important, and he would be transferred to an operator as soon as possible. He sat back in his armchair with the phone pressed to his ear, his hearing was not so good any more, and he did not want to miss anything the operator had to say.
One hour later, Henry hung up. The feminine voice had reassured him hundreds of times that his call was important, but, evidently, not enough for anyone, at the other end of the line, to answer it.
He would have to haul himself to the police station. He straightened up and all his joints cricked, then, with an ominous bang, his gut released a large amount of gas, followed by his breakfast. Henry cursed, the newspaper could at least have hinted something like that might happen! He had been right all along, the press could not be trusted!
Henry looked down at his trousers, he could not very well go out in the state he was. He picked up the soiled cushion and headed for the bathroom.
Henry showered himself then the cushion.
He noticed the lingering smell of bad meat; he should have known that modern shower jell would not be up to the job –modern things never were.
He looked at the bottle of laundry soap, sitting on top of the washing machine. Guaranteed to cut through even the most stubborn stains and leave a refreshing smell of citrus fruits, the label said.
He washed himself and the cushion again. He could still pick up a bit of a smell on his skin, but it was pleasantly overpowered by the scent of oranges.
He chucked the soiled clothes in the washing machine, added double the recommended amount of detergent, and started it. The machine made a gurgling noise then began to hop around. The din was maddening. With a grunt, Henry lifted the washing machine and adjusted the legs.
He stood up in wonder, his back had been bad for years, and yet he had been able to lift that heavy lump of metal without, as much as, a twitch in his spine. He looked down at his hands and his sudden burst of happiness was cut short. Two of his fingers were dangling off their roots. This body might not hurt, but it was fragile.
He got the sewing kit out and repaired the damage the best he could.
He looked at the black stitching; perhaps, he should have taken the time to pick a colour that would not stand out so much against his grey skin.
Henry dressed himself then looked at his reflection in the mirror. He had been saving that suit for this special occasion, and was, overall, pleased with his appearance of quiet respectability.
Henry sat down on the edge of his bed. He had had plans: a sombre ceremony, a black shiny hearse to take his body to the cemetery, the family plot surrounded by flowers; instead, he would have to walk himself down to the police station, fill in his own death certificate, then head to the crematorium, and wait out his turn in the oven. Where was the dignity in that?!
His life had been one disappointment after another: no wife to share his old age with, no children to cherish, a job that had left him with a pension he could barely survive on. And now this: a humiliating death.
He wanted to cry, but there was no spare water, sloshing about in his body, to produce tears. Henry laid down, crossed his arms on his chest then closed his eyes and pretended he was receiving his last rites.
Loud banging and shouting, filtering down from the upstairs flat, filled his bedroom.
He pushed himself up. Enough was enough! He was going to give those two a piece of his mind.
Henry walked out onto the landing then put his foot onto the first step. He was not afraid anymore.
Henry climbed up the stairs, his lips curved upwards, there were some advantages to being dead.
The door burst open, and Henry found himself about to knock on a nose.
Henry stepped back then looked up and down at the young man standing in the door step, he believed in minding his own business, but the man was clearly holding a knife, and Henry’s nose was telling him it was not strawberry jam that was dripping off it.
Henry did not claim to be an expert, but he had watched enough daytime television to hazard a few guesses; the blood was human and, in all likelihood, coming from the arm he could see pushing against a half-closed door. In addition, if that chubby arm was still attached, the rest of the body should be laying on the kitchen floor.
The man begun to tremble.
‘It’s not my fault... I was spreading some butter on my toast and, when I turned to see what she was shouting about, she impaled herself on it. I swear to God’.
Henry looked at the man then at the carving knife in his bloody hand. Odd choice of cutlery for spreading butter, he thought.
‘We should check on your wife,’ he added aloud
‘Girlfriend.’ the man interjected.
Henry nodded,‘Girlfriend. She might be wounded and in need of medical attention.’ he said heading for the arm.
Henry bent down then peered at the sprawled body. It seemed to him that the woman had pushed herself against the carving knife a half-dozen times, at least.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach. Hardly surprising, Henry told himself, he had had breakfast before going to church, and it was close to lunchtime now.
‘Are you sure this was accidental?’ he asked standing up.
‘What are you saying?’ the man hissed.
Henry looked at the young man shaking like a tower of lime jelly –even in his current condition, confronting him might not be advisable. He opted to talk the murderous boyfriend around, and then accompany him to the police station. It would not be much of a trouble, after all, he was heading that way himself. The aroma of freshly deceased tickled his hunger.
‘What’s your name young man?’ he asked. It was important to create an emotional bond with a distraught criminal, all the police dramas suggested as much.
He patted Ian’s shoulder and, silently, congratulated himself for coming up with a gesture that was both sympathetic and comforting.
Henry spotted the dark stitching at the base of his fingers and quickly hid his hand behind his back.
‘Ian, I don’t mean to impose on you at such a difficult time, but given the circumstances, I feel I ought to ask you what happened.’ Henry said then used his left hand to pat Ian’s shoulder.
‘I told you man, she was yelling at me’.
‘She used to raise her voice quite a bit’, Henry agreed. Strange... he had never noticed before how delicious the woman smelled.
One of Henry's nails caught into a loose thread. He eased his hand away, but his blackish nail remained stubbornly lodged into Ian’s scruffy tee-shirt.
‘Yes and a man needs some peace on a Sunday morning’.
‘Absolutely.’ Henry agreed, as his left hand joined the right one behind his back.
‘I loved her and I would never harm her.’ Ian mumbled, while tears chased each other down his cheeks.
‘I know, I always thought you were very understanding of her habit of yelling at you.’ Henry offered, more to distract himself form the mouth watering aroma than to console.
‘and hitting me with the frying pan.’ Ian added.
Henry turned and looked at Ian, the man had a black eye and there were quite a few bruises on his arms. Strange he had always assumed... as it turned out, he had been wrong.
‘She was a good cook then?’
Ian gave him a puzzled look.
‘Ehm, I remember reading somewhere, that good cooks can be somewhat temperamental.’ Henry added, thinking that if he stayed much longer in that kitchen, he was going to drool.
‘Could not fry an egg to save her life.’ Ian mumbled staring at the body ‘Oh my God, I didn’t mean...’.
‘Ian,’ Henry said guiding him out into the corridor. ‘I will be honest with you, it doesn’t look good’.
Ian shook him off and nearly sent Henry’s arm flying off.
‘You don’t believed me?’ he growled.
‘Of course I do, but what about the police?’ Henry replied.
‘The bitch made my life hell! But, oh no that’s not enough for her, now I have to go to prison because of her.’ Ian wailed.
The quick change of heart caught Henry off guard.
‘You are a nice men’, he said catching up with events. ‘I may know someone that could help.’ he added, drawing on his memories of early evening television.
Ian eyes lit up.
‘Man, I would never forget it’.
‘But first, we need to bring her down to my flat.’ Henry said, picking up the woman by her shoulders, then noticed Ian’s dubious look. ‘My friend does not need to know about you.’ he whispered.
Ian nodded, as fast as his neck would let him, then picked up the woman’s legs.
On their way out, Henry spotted a portable air conditioning unit.
‘I will need that.’ he said. ‘I need to keep the place cool... until my friend arrives, you understand’.
Ian looked down at the body of his girlfriend and a tear collected at the corner of his eye.
Henry sat in his small kitchen. He had laid the body out on the old linoleum floor. Her name was Tina, Ian had told him. He tucked the edge of a large towel inside his collar. He had been a vegetarian for years, because his pension would not stretch to keep him in meat; he looked at Tina and nodded, approving of the woman’s full figure.
He whispered Grace under his breath then wiped the droll off his mouth.
‘Waste not want not.’ he murmured and bit into the woman’s thigh.
She had been an unpleasant, bitter character in life. Henry took another bite. In death, she was, nothing but, sweet and juicy.
Henry sat back on his heels. He needed to make her last, he may not find another body that easily. He licked his lips, he would allow himself one more bite then he would store her for later.
Oh, but she was so delicious. Henry thought nibbling her fingers, she must have watched what she ate; he could not believe anyone gobbling down those horrid concoctions, they passed for food on the high street, could taste that nice.
He would take one more bite to make that edge tidy then pack her into the fridge... Maybe he could take another morsel, a teeny-weeny one...
Henry sat back, he could not believe it, all there was left of sweet Tina was the brain and the heart. He had set the two aside, planning to bury them in the back garden. It was not proper to eat the two organs where the woman’s soul might have resided. Henry went to church every Sunday, regular. He knew about souls.
Henry rubbed his stomach. He had had the soft bits first, the pink, then the dark red ones. He had snapped the bones, and sucked out the marrow, then he had chewed on the bones with childish greed.
He was full, and yet he felt like he could do with something else. It was the kind of feeling he used to get after a big meal... back then he would have satisfied himself with a bit of sticky toffee pudding and ice-cream. Perhaps a bit of steamed sponge, out of a tin, might do the trick; he would have to go to the mini-market to get some, though... His attention turned to the pink-grey brain and the dark read heart. Maybe, he could allow himself a little taste...
He took a small bite of the brain then the heart. He had enjoyed Tina, flesh, guts and bones, the lot, but those two organs were something else, they tasted like nothing he had ever had before. He scooped them up in his hands. After all Mother used to say that wasting food was a sin. He pushed both heart and brain inside his mouth and, with a happy grin on his face, chewed down the last of Tina.
Henry stood up, licked his fingers clean, then pulled the towel out of his collar and dabbed at his mouth. It had been heaven, the best meal he had ever had.
He pushed the air conditioning unit close to his armchair, turned it on and waved his hand in front of the cool stream. He switched it off. Could he afford to run it? The smell of putrid meat spread around the warm room. He looked down at the unit again. Winter was coming, and what he spent now on cooling himself, he would save on heating during the long winter months. He switched on the machine again, and turned the knob to full power.
Henry picked up his newspaper then lowered himself in his armchair and listened out; the only sound was the air conditioning unit whooshing in the background. He slid down his seat and basked in the blessed silence that had finally descended on his home.
He opened his paper.
‘I miss him’.
Henry sat up, the voice had come from somewhere inside him.
Maybe it was part of his condition, a side effect, deterioration of the brain and all that. All the reports said that the zombies shuffled around, uttering unintelligible grunts, grabbing people and tearing out their guts. But those report had to be wrong, or greatly inflated, after all he had been able to hold a rather intelligent, and creative, conversation with Ian.
‘I want him.’ the voice screamed.
‘Who?’ Henry found himself replying.
‘Ian, I want my Ian! It feels lonely in here.’ the voice ended in a high-pitched whine.
All Henry wanted was to close his eyes and rest for five minutes. He ripped the head off Meredith’s boyfriend, turned it upside-down, scooped out the brain out then shoved it down his throat.
Henry had not had a quiet moment since the day he had died. Ian had been the first, then Tina had missed her mother. Her mother had wanted her dog; the dog had pained for the kid that had adopted it; the kid had missed his mum and dad; the mum had missed her sister, who in turn had missed her son, and the son had missed his friends, and so on...
Henry shuffled on growling and grunting. He could not get a word in or a thought out, with all the chattering, singing, barking, meowing and yelling, that was going on inside him. If he could have, Henry would have cried... The racket inside his head reached another peak, and began to climb higher. HE COULD NOT BARE IT ANYMORE.
‘Sir there is another one at the door’.
The sergeant looked up from his desk, he had just finished clearing off last night intake.
‘Would be any use telling him to come back later?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think so. He is grunting and drooling... Sir he is rattling the door’.
‘I guess, we cannot have that.’ the sergeant said, picking up the stick with the loop at the end.
He nodded and the kid threw the door open. The sergeant lowered the loop around the zombie’s neck and pulled it tight.
‘Check his pockets.’ he ordered.
The kid made a face, but patted the zombie. He pulled out a bunch of papers.
‘The name is Henry Staps, pensioner’.
‘All right Henry, let’s get you to a nice, cosy cell’ Serg said.
‘Good, good’ Serg said, shoving him inside a cell with six growling zombies.
He freed Henry’s neck then quickly locked the door.
‘Now, someone from social services will be around in’, Serg scratched his temple, ‘a couple of months, tops’.
‘Ghrrrr.’ Henry said then tried to strangle himself, but his last remaining three fingers came off.
‘No need for that pal.’ Serg said ‘As I was saying, the Social will assess you and re-locate you to refrigerated accommodation.’ he added wiping the sweat off his brow. The holding cells could get mighty hot.
‘You will be held there until your case is due in Court. The new Bill on zombie rights is being discussed, once the government passes it, the Courts can start working. Your case number should be’, Serg looked into his notebook, ‘3659’.
‘No reason to get all worked up about it, Henry. Quite down, you!’ he shouted at the other howling zombies. ‘Look you have six mates to help you pass the time.’ Serg yelled over the din. ‘Make yourself at home, put your feet up, relax’.
‘Oh, I reckon no more than 15 years, 17 max before you are sentenced’.