Root Memory

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The Smiths

As he opened the curtains on the second day of the New Year, Nigel realised that if he was still back in Oxford, everyone would be returning to work today. But Scotland needed another Bank Holiday to get over its celebrations; not that he’d partaken much in the way of alcohol since his embarrassing experience on Christmas night.

Zoe had stayed with him till after midnight to watch a film on TV before retiring to her camper. That had been the pattern for the last week: she worked in her van during the day on her artwork, or nipped out on appointments to her hairdressing and chiropody clients, returning to the bungalow for meals and evenings with Nigel. In that time they’d grown close, but not intimate. The invisible barrier still remained around Zoe, keeping Nigel both physically and emotionally at arm’s length. But otherwise there was an obvious easy warmth and affectionate bond building between the two of them. They could both act pretty much themselves, cracking jokes and teasing each other.

Nigel felt as much at ease as he could remember. Sometimes he would be content to just stare out of the window and watch the moods of the weather for an hour, or take Maggie for long walks up the coastline while Zoe was busy.

As far as the guest house went, there was nothing really left to do in preparation for the first visitors. The beds were aired and the rooms were now looking much more inviting with the addition of Zoe’s paintings and indefinable woman’s touch about the place.

Nigel chomped on his toast while booting up the computer. The previous day he’d received the first booking on the website: a Mr and Mrs Smith were due to arrive some time that morning. He and Zoe had amused themselves with the speculation that it was probably a dirty weekend the pair had got planned, possessing as they did such a wilfully anonymous surname. Nigel mulled on the predicament of all those authentic Mr Smiths out there planning any kind of hotel stay with a woman; how they must accept the assumption from staff members that they are up to some sort of adulterous escapade.

Zoe burst into the study in a fluster.

“My keys: the van keys. I’m sure they were on the kitchen table.”

“Have you tried your pockets?”

“Yes, I’ve tried my pockets, and the back of the sofa; the hook by the front door... everywhere! I’m supposed to be in Lochranza by twelve; a new customer. I don’t want to be late for a first appointment. Where the hell are they?”

“I thought my memory was bad enough, but you take it to another level. I would seriously consider getting the doc to check you for the onset of Alzheimer’s,” quipped Nigel. “I mean, on Monday you were back after ten minutes because you’d left your foot tool thingies here; then on Wednesday you were half way to Brodick before you remembered that you’d forgotten the shopping list. What are you like?”

Nigel heard a distant exclamation of triumph and headed in its direction.

“Got them, got them, got them,” shouted out Zoe with relief.

“So where were they?”

“In my other coat.”

“No comment.”

Zoe hurriedly put her usual coat on and raced to the front door. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you when I see you. Be nice to the Smiths, won’t you, if I’m not back in time. Make them feel welcome. Bye.

“Course I will. Seeya.”

Nigel wandered back to the study and sat down to resume a leisurely scroll through his new emails, to the sound of Mercedes Sprinter wheels chewing up gravel as it accelerated out of the drive. There was a new message from Kevin in his inbox, complete with a link to a bawdy Youtube clip that he chose to give a miss. One email from a potential guest asked if it was possible to accommodate three bull mastiffs. Nigel selected his words carefully in composing a polite refusal.

For a while he had been gradually moving his head to the left, to avoid the sidereal shift of bright sunshine streaming through the window. He pulled one curtain across to block it so he could resume his original posture. When he looked back at the screen he was greeted by an error message reading, ’Internet Explorer is unable to display the webpage’. Nigel repeatedly refreshed the page, but no success. He cursed his bad luck that it should happen just when he was trying to gather new guests. The connection was often slow but it hadn’t disappeared altogether before.

The doorbell rang.

“I don’t believe it. What on earth has she forgotten this time? he snarled in a long-suffering tone under his breath and snatched the front door open.

Nigel was unsure if he’d seen it on TV or read it somewhere that the reason pigeons choose to stay in the path of a vehicle right up to the point where you believe you are going to hit them is due to their perception of movement being much quicker than that of humans; that it was if “our” world was in slow motion to them. The speedometer might be reading 30mph to us, but to the pigeon it would seem more like 5mph – plenty of time to make a languid exit before impact.

In that first fraction of a second, Nigel recalled an event from around the time he and Ralph tried to launch a snail into space. That was the last time he’d felt anything like it; when some older boys had jumped him on the way to school and stolen his dinner money. They’d duffed him up for having the cheek to refuse them their easy pickings.

It was violent, burning pain to his face. He’d forgotten just how loud it was, a blow like that: a boom like thunder right inside your skull. Then, at the same instant, his ears started to ring. It reminded him of high pitched, penetrating guitar feedback – in stereo. It was if his head had suddenly become pressurized; he’d lost his sense of balance too. Nigel was unable to feel his legs beneath him; he was floating. His nose stung like hell from the punch. He pressed his hand against it hoping to numb the pain. It continued to throb. Then he looked up.

“Dixey. I thought –”

“What, that I was a long way away?” he replied with a sardonic smirk.

“So, it was you that...“

Dixey mimicked the action of wire cutters.

“And me who booked the room. Have you plumped up the pillows all nice?” Eyes watering, Nigel staggered to his feet, still trying to piece events together in his head. He was in shock. Dixey anticipated his next question. “Little cogs going round are they? Let me guess, you’re wondering how I knew you were living up here, yeah? I’ve got to hand it to you Nero, I didn’t know you’d got the balls. What the fuck did you think you were playing at? You paid what you owed me and I left you alone; that was the deal wasn’t it?”

Nigel continued to clutch his face as he replied to Dixey with an obstructed, adenoidal diction.

“Oh yeah, like you thought I would just forget you’d killed my dad; put it down to experience or something? Do what you like to me, you murdering bastard!” he snapped, with a certain lack of commitment to bravery in his voice.

“Strong accusations, mate; just as well my solicitor can’t hear you. Look, the police questioned me and let me go. End of. But what you and that slag did to me; that was assault. If I wanted it, you’d both go down for that.”

“I was just trying to make you feel what you make other people suffer, so you’d understand; know what it’s like to be on the receiving end for a change. What you were doing to that girl, Maia; it was as good as rape. Why do you do it? why do you get such a kick out of causing so much misery?”

Dixey’s eyes bored into him with controlled rage. He paused before he answered. “The only reason I’ve come up to this out-of-the-way shit hole is to sort this thing out for good.”

Nigel began to hyperventilate, imagining the worst. “What... you mean you’re going to kill me?”

Dixey gave a disdainful snort. “You’re gonna wish I had... Nero, mate, you’ve gone a funny colour; maybe you need some fresh air.”

“You mentioned Sabrina. How did you –“

“Well, if it wasn’t for that wankers’ club she works at I’d never have known any better. Funny how it goes, isn’t it. No, there I was at home, feet up in front of the local news, and there she is, fluttering her eyelashes; some sort of fuss from the neighbours about attracting unsavoury types to the area. Didn’t take long for Darren and Google to track her down – then for her to tell us where you were hiding yourself.”

“I don’t believe... she wouldn’t just tell you just like that where I was; what have you done to her? You better not have hurt her.”

“You can’t be sure you’ll hear the truth that way – and no, I didn’t stick it in her either – that sort repel me; you never know what you’re gonna catch.”

Nigel made a passionate but ill-aimed swing at Dixey but he nonchalantly leaned backwards out of his reach and returned a brutal upper cut into his victim’s belly. Nigel fell to the floor, winded and tearful with anger.

“Just tell me she’s safe, that’s all.”

“Oh she’s safe. Safe at home with Lorcan looking after her till he knows we’ve met up again,” he smirked, glancing at his watch. “Didn’t want her spoiling my little surprise visit. I thought I’d keep it nice and simple: either tell me where you are or... well, all manner of possibilities. Oh, and if you or her start getting any ideas about sending any pictures to my family... Look, I’m getting bored now, Nero. Get your jacket off so we can sort this out properly.”

Dixey stripped to his tight-fitting white vest and limbered up outside the bungalow.

“Get on with it. It’s like the fucking Arctic up here.”

Nigel dutifully removed his fleece and shivered in his T-shirt as he faltered dizzy dazed towards his unknown fate. Dixey wasted no time in giving him a hefty blow to the side of his face, immediately felling Nigel to the ground again. His tongue identified a wobbly tooth.

“Come on, put up some kind of fight.”

With a merry-go-round head, Nigel lifted himself up once more only to receive another pounding to his lower torso, followed by another right hook to his face before he could even think about aiming his own fist. He fell flat on his back, barely conscious.

“For fuck sake, Nero, you sad bastard, you’re like a big jelly. Come on, be a man. Fight me.”

Nigel approximated the vision of a sorrowful seal, beached and blubbery, waiting for the culler’s bloody baton. Dixey began to tap him with his foot, then roll him over, as if attempting to identify road kill; then began to kick him, progressively harder and harder: a few times to the kidneys then to his head; a consistent pummelling: sickening thuds to his body which produced less and less vocal response with each blow.

By now, Nigel was no longer flinching with pain to his sustained punishment – mentally he’d retreated into another place. It was all happening at a distance. He was no longer confident of what was real and what was delusion. He believed he heard a familiar voice shouting. It sounded like Zoe. But it couldn’t be her, she was miles away. Nigel felt concern. If it was her she was in danger. He tried to lift his head and see, but nothing happened.

It was Zoe shouting. Her yellow van had pulled up to a halt behind Dixey’s hire car which was blocking the drive. At first she’d taken it to be the Smiths’ vehicle.

“What are you doing to him? Stop it... stop!

Dixey swung round like a hyena briefly distracted from its meal. He glanced at her, saw she was no immediate threat, and then carried on with his task. Zoe thought quickly. She slid open the side door of the van.

“Go Maggie. Get the man. Get him!”

Maggie launched immediately, torpedoing speedy and straight towards her assigned target. With his back to them, Dixey was unaware of the tactical strike until it hit him. With a bellowing bark, the huge creature toppled him, pressing him to the ground with all its heft.

“That’s it, Maggie. Hold him!”

With Dixey at least temporarily disarmed, Zoe ran towards Nigel.

“What’s he done to you, Nigel?”

Zoe wanted to hold him and comfort him, but in seeing the extent of his injuries: face all bruised and bloodied and a rattle to his breathing, she mimed caresses, hovering them close to him, cooing comforting words. Noticing that Nigel was shivering, she removed her coat and placed it over him. Then she rushed indoors to call an ambulance. Of course the phone was dead. In disbelief, Zoe repeatedly pressed the green button on the handset. Even though she knew it would be a waste of time, she reached for her mobile and rushed outdoors in search of a signal that had never existed in that part of the island and wouldn’t materialize now, however much she wished it into being. Zoe looked down at Nigel again.

“Don’t worry. Hang on, love. I’ll get help somehow.”

Her attention returned to Dixey. He’d got back to his feet and was involved in a determined effort to avoid a mauling from Maggie, but she still had the upper hand. In desperation, Dixey reached for genitals to grab – they were absent. Now informed of its gender, he instead attempted to gouge the animal’s eyes out with an outstretched finger. Maggie yelped and pushed him to the ground once more, sinking her teeth into one of his thighs, then to an outstretched arm. He yelled against the pain. At this point, with surprising speed and expertise, Dixey grabbed the dog’s tongue and twisted it, the surprise causing a momentary release of her grip.

Zoe was concerned that Maggie might get injured.

“Maggie. Off, off, off. Leave him. Come here!”

Dixey was on his feet again and eyeing-up the prospect of making his escape. Zoe was having none of it. Ushering Maggie back into the van, she reached for a meat cleaver from the knife drawer. Zoe’s blood was up now. Outrage had replaced fear and there was no way this malign interloper was going to get away from her. Dixey was disorientated and dragging one leg behind him while clutching his left upper arm as he aimlessly tried to put distance between himself and his adversaries. Holding the weapon high, Zoe charged towards him fiercely shouting an elongated, improvised battle cry.

On hearing her close in on him, Dixey swivelled round on the spot, his face registering disbelief at the large blade being brandished towards him. As Zoe waved the cleaver, he instinctively raised his “good” arm to protect himself. The sharp edge sliced through Dixey’s outstretched palm.

Nigel briefly snapped out of his comatose state in response to the penetrating scream that reverberated off the hillside. For a few moments he was able to raise his head and open a single unbloodied eye to view the scene before him. Zoe’s elevated arm froze mid-air with surgical anticipation as Dixey lurched backwards, his mouth gaping, dumbfounded. Nigel’s head flopped back to the ground as he drifted into semi-consciousness, inhaling shallow, tentative breaths against the weight of his chest.

He became aware of images from the Bwiti ceremony he’d viewed back at the lighthouse. Abstracted from his surroundings and injuries, Nigel recalled Flannery’s ardent discourse that evening, explaining how iboga appeared to ground the community, neutralizing their venal vices; self-indulgence kept in check, seemingly freed from the corrosive self-absorption experienced by the wider world. Who now in the hurtling, hedonistic West would stray into the Garden and elect to chew on a sour root in preference to a reassuringly sweet and juicy apple.

Resembling one of the fallen, out of reach in no man’s land, Dixey lay sobbing and forlorn in the dirt as Zoe sped away in the van in search of help. Nigel’s senses were soothed by the romantic recollection of their evenings together since Christmas. Not since that distant day with Laura in the meadow, when the skylark soared and sang above them, had his heart felt so light and yearning.

The cool island breeze conveyed the ebb and flow of sea on sand, and the cries of gulls overhead lulled Nigel’s sinking senses as he gazed up from his awkward repose at continents of billowing white clouds sailing across the blue ocean of sky.

Once again he settled into the cotton wool comfort of his earliest memory: that aeon of an afternoon spent soaking up sunshine and summer sounds, lying there serenely in his pram as the world made slow sense.

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