If something’s shit, it’s shit. But if it’s really shit, then it’s shite, isn’t it? Common wisdom, that.
(Gary’s words of wisdom)
It was now some weeks and a number of deaths since, in another part of the city, one Chester Guberson had discovered a new niche for himself in the retribution market, not that Thyroid had any idea who Chester was or that their respective states of mind at the moment had been put into motion by the same catalyst. Right now, Thyroid was sitting slumped on a leather couch in his usual pub listening to Gary praise him for giving the Scatologist (the capital had since become official) a name. ‘Really,’ he was saying, ‘you should patent the name. You came up with it; it’s your baby.’ That particular idea made Thyroid wince inwardly; the thought that all he had succeeded in doing was to have made the laxative-toting loon a household name had been plaguing him much of late. ‘Now everyone’s using it,’ Gary continued. ‘You should try and make some money on it.’
‘Yeah,’ said Thyroid morosely. ‘Only that’s all I’ve done, isn’t it? Giving this freak a name hasn’t brought anyone closer to catching him.’
‘You’re probably the closest anyone’s come to explaining the why.’
The words rang disharmoniously in Thyroid’s ears. Over the last few weeks, Thyroid had been writing regular articles about the Scatologist, trying to get to the social psychology that potentially lay behind the perverse attacks. Each new victim meant a new rehash of non-developing material. Admittedly, Henry was paying him well for the articles and the public seemed to be of the opinion that Thyroid knew what he was talking about, all of which only conspired to make him feel like a fraud and a leech. He knew nothing about the Scatologist, not one single solid fact. All he did was type out a bit of flowery pap with the sole objective of meeting a deadline every week. Furthermore, it was the kind of pap that anyone could have come up with. He had simply been the first, thanks to the advantage Henry’s source had given them, and now, as a consequence, he was being hailed as an expert. Anyone who read his articles knew as much as he did; in terms of times and places, that was really all anyone could know. You didn’t need to be a genius to swallow factoids and spew them back out again. It was the intellectual equivalent of jamming two fingers down the back of your gullet, no more than bulimic punditry. Thyroid found himself constantly regurgitating his original article, saying the same things over and over again, painting over the repetition with increasingly illicit vocabulary and a few stabs at irony. Of course, everyone lapped it up, the paper sold well and Thyroid was left with the burden of guilt that comes to those capable of it when cashing in on the distress of others.
To make matters more depressing, events of a rather more significant import were engaging the public’s attention these days. It was as if the city had come under the influence of twenty-four hour, daily full moon. Yet another psycho was on the scene. Shortly after the Scatologist story had broken, several people had turned up with great big holes where their brains used to be. Except for one of them, an everyday nobody called Brian Dinks, these murders had all been loosely associated with an exaggerated judgement on the characters of the victims; Dinks had been the only one who hadn’t at one time or another been involved in some kind of selfish, society-damaging chicanery, as far as the killer was apparently concerned. Which made Thyroid feel even more of a charlatan, having to waste his time on a shit-obsessed fruitcake. For all he knew, his weekly articles, detailing the latest attacks and newest insights (which, he admitted with some bitterness, were neither new nor insightful), only served to keep the Scatologist going. Having such a catchy name would probably only encourage the whacko more, he thought miserably. He had admitted as much to Henry. The editor had sympathised, unsympathetically in Thyroid’s opinion, but had also said that as long as it sold papers there was no point in giving up on a good thing.
Gary, as ever, was ready with more of his own brand of modern day thinking to ease Thyroid’s conscience. ‘Look, Thy, if it hadn’t been you, it would’ve been someone else, wouldn’t it? You’ve got bills to pay just like everyone else and to do that, you’ve got to work. What’s your job? Writing articles that are in the public interest and, just for once, that’s what you’ve actually been doing. Honestly, I never expected to hear people say “I wonder what Bolton wrote today”. It makes the mind boggle.’
‘Cheers Gary. Once again, you’ve put my world into much needed perspective.’
‘Glad to oblige. Now, why don’t you show your appreciation by getting another round in?’
Thyroid ambled over to the bar. It was Tuesday afternoon, which meant lunch with Gary in the Crippled Moose. They had lunch other days too, but Tuesday was an unbroken ritual, unless there was some city- or nation-shattering event that demanded everyone’s presence in the newsroom. Even then, Gary would try and convince the rest of the team to have their meetings in the pub instead. Usually, both of them would finish up early on a Tuesday and get drunk over whatever it was they were having with chips.
He returned to the table with two pints of Caffreys and Gary gave him a brisk nod of thanks. ‘So,’ the ex-rugby player said, ‘what’s your next angle gonna be?
‘I don’t know. What else is there to say? What I need is to talk to this weirdo. He’s the only one with the answers. You can’t pre-empt because his modus operandi is the random. All I can do is tell people to be on the lookout for the pathologically pessimistic, which just about covers half the UK and is about as constructive as reminding people to exhale after inhaling. Other than that, watch your plates.’ They both looked suspiciously down at the scraps left on their own dishes. Gary shrugged and scooped everything together with one hand and crammed it into his mouth. ‘Maybe I’ll write about something else for a while. Unless anything really new comes up, I don’t see how long we can get away with rehashing the same old stuff before somebody notices. Henry will see that.’
‘I suppose you’re right,’ said Gary, swallowing his ale. ‘So, what are you going to write about?’
Thyroid raised his palms. ‘How shit life can get,’ he said smiling.
Gary laughed and took another swig from his glass. Then he said, ‘When was the last time you had a date, man?’
Thyroid was momentarily nonplussed by the question. ‘Why do you ask?’ He sounded defensive, he knew.
‘Well, to be honest mate, the fact that, really, all you do go on about is how shit life gets, I reckon your articles might perk up after a bit of romance.’
‘Fuck me, Gary. What kind of bullshit is that?’
‘It’s not bullshit, Thyroid. Think about it. All your stuff has been on the bleak, critical side for a while now. I’ve told you so fuck knows how many times. Coincidentally, it’s more or less since the same time Anna left you.’
‘Jesus Christ help me, Gary the psychologist! You should stop reading those self-help books, fella.’
‘Yeah, Thyroid, take the piss. If it helps you to keep on masking the truth, go ahead.’
‘Not now, Gary, ok?’ It occurred to Thyroid that he always ended up sounding tired whenever Gary tried to bring Anna into the conversation, which was pretty frequent. Thyroid was at a loss to explain the fascination his old relationship held for his friend. Still, his own reaction was always somehow immature, like a child sulking when the cookies were out of reach.
‘Fair enough… but you know I’m right.’ His favourite words, Thyroid thought uncharitably. After all, he supposed Gary was only trying to help him out. Gary was making a show of turning his attention away from his huffy colleague and towards his newspaper. ‘Fuck,’ he said, ‘there’s been another murder. Ex-priest this time, suspected of diddling the choirboys.’
Thyroid said nothing.
Thyroid staggered in through the door at the disgustingly early hour of seven p.m. and fell into his usual horizontal position on the sofa. He banished all thoughts of making a joint from his mind; the last time he mixed such a large quantity of booze with weed he had completely left his skull. Or rather, he had completely gone into his skull. It had been just after Anna had left him; Thyroid was looking for oblivion in one of the oldest ways known to man, alcohol. An old colleague, a Scot by the name of Theo MacFarlane, had taken him on an all-out drinking binge around the bars of Birmingham. It had been Theo’s idea to go back to his place after and do a couple of bongs. Thyroid had readily agreed, seeking thorough disconnection from his personal world of loss. Theo had cut the bottom off an empty plastic three-litre bottle while Thyroid busied himself making a screen for the top by poking holes into some foil. Theo filled the sink with water and lowered the bottle into it and the screen was then fixed around the spout. The screen was loaded and while Theo added flame to the grass, Thyroid slowly lifted the bottle from the water, making sure not to remove it completely, the air pressure inside pulling the smoke from the smouldering buds into the interior. Just over two litres of smoke to a bong, they had done two each, consecutively. Straight away, Thyroid had noticed that his vision was staring to waver, that the world around him was getting progressively weirder. The kitchen walls had started to breathe, undulating gently. Theo had seen that something was up and suggested that they go into the living room to play some backgammon, to focus their minds a little. Thyroid had followed, grateful to be moving away from the slowly liquefying walls.
After what had seemed like an eternity but was probably only a few minutes, Theo had to ask Thyroid once more if everything was okay. Theo had been right to ask. Thyroid was having trouble moving his fingers; he felt as though some supra-being had pressed the slow motion button on his universe. He said to Theo, ‘I think… I think I’ve lost all sense of spatial perspective.’ As far as Thyroid’s senses were concerned, he – the conscious he, he later supposed – had shrunk to the size of a thumbprint and was now sitting inside his skull, looking out of two flat oval windows, which he could only assume were his eyes, whilst manipulating a complex remote control unit in an attempt to govern the movement of his arms, hands and fingers. It was a very disorientating experience and Thyroid, much to his friend’s bemusement, had no choice but to hold onto to Theo’s leg for fear of flying away and never coming back. Unfortunately, he had then thrown up over Theo’s trousers. The Scot had taken it all in his stride (“and all on my strides,” he would say afterwards) and had simply left the room to change his trousers and return with some black coffee, patting Thyroid on the head and muttering a few jumbled words about women. The following morning, Thyroid decided never to cocktail again.
Coffee seemed like a good idea, now he was thinking about it. He got up, the memories of inner-body odysseys fading away, and dragged his feet to the kitchen. It had been some time since he had thought in detail about that night with Theo; like so many of the images associated with his break-up, it had been filed away for long term storage. Fucking Gary, he thought as he filled the kettle and clicked it on to boil. It was no secret to those who knew him that Anna was a very sore point. People avoided talking about her. Well, most people had simply forgotten about her. Only Gary, or occasionally Henry, brought her up. Henry did so out of surrogate parental concern; Gary, Thyroid assumed, because he worried his friend was becoming a eunuch.
What it was to have had your heart broken, he thought ruefully. Even after three years, he still couldn’t think about other women. Why invite that sort of complexity back into his life? Two years they had shared, and for what? Nothing. Anna had been too unsure of who she was, at least then, to ever commit to him. She had even told him as much, but there’s no fool like a wilfully blind fool. Thyroid would try and wave aside her insecurities, try to impose his own order upon her confusion, but it never did any good. Anna’s real name was Kamaljeet. She was a first generation child of couple from Bombay and her parents assumed an anglophile name would help her to fit in better. Only, in truth, her parents had never wanted her to fit in that much, certainly not get involved with someone outside the community. Being the only daughter hadn’t helped and from the beginning Anna had been torn between her own freedom and the desire not to hurt her parents, whom she loved dearly. She was the pride of the house, an official title, and the responsibility of bringing shame on her family was too much to bear. Knowing that hadn’t made Thyroid feel any more understanding.
The whole situation was crazy. Her father didn’t want his daughter to marry a white boy (but then he didn’t want her to date white boys either, and she had already been doing that for about two years before they met). But what if, Thyroid had asked her, she found a nice Sikh boy and her father didn’t approve of him either? Was she always to give up what she wanted for the sake of parental sympathy? What Thyroid found most infuriating, and perplexing, was that Anna only ever talked about how angry she felt towards her own culture, or at least the restrictive parts of it (Thyroid had to admit that Anna was also proud of her culture too), but culture is a hard habit to break and eventually it was culture that won and Thyroid who lost. He supposed it was probably that more than anything else that made him so bitter; sometimes he thought in retrospect it would have been easier to have lost out to another man rather than an idea.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t loved him – she had – but that she had been too uncertain of her own place in the world to stand up for herself, for them, even though she already lived a life entirely contrary to the dictates of her parents’ ideology. Their relationship had gradually ruptured under the pressure of recriminations, frustration and the overwhelming power of Thyroid’s invisible, abstract rival. Who needed that shit?
Thyroid went back into the living room with his coffee and fell asleep without touching it.
It was the telephone that woke him up, the excited shrill of the ringer driving nails into his hangover. Damp with boozy sweat and feeling like a tonne of sewage, he hobbled over to the phone. ‘Yeah,’ he said, noticing blearily that the tiny light indicating waiting messages was blinking furiously. ‘Who’s calling?’ he asked, ignoring the flashing dot of light for the moment.
‘Good. Er, I hope you don’t mind but I got your number from the people at The Contemporary, a nice man called Henry Gunther.’
‘Well, I was thinking that perhaps we could help each other. My name is Marie Pawlak. My uncle, you see, he was one of the victims of this madman and his chemicals. I wonder, is it possible we could get together for a chat?’