Purpose and Motivation
Marie put the phone down and let her eyes wander again over the front page of the paper. All things considered, Marie thought that Thyroid, Mr. Bolton to her, was taking the news remarkably well. Below the large, century gothic font logo of the newspaper was a scanned image of a slightly creased, typed letter addressed to Mr. C. Bolton and signed by, in inverted commas, “the Scatologist”. The letter itself consisted of just one sentence: "The next one is for you."
‘Marie,’ Henri called from the living room. ‘Look at this idiot on the TV. Ah, what a fool.’
Marie walked in from the hall and glanced at the screen. ‘What am I looking at?’
‘This imbecile,’ cried Henri, waving his hand disgustedly at the picture.
‘That’s JR Ewing,’ said Marie tonelessly.
‘I know it is. What? You think because your Henri has had a heart attack, he must be so old he is senile, too, eh?’
She rolled her eyes theatrically. Henri certainly seemed to have gotten over his ordeal quickly enough once he was back home. Which was a good thing, she reminded herself. But she couldn’t remember him ever liking Dallas. ‘When did you start watching that?’ She made no effort at keeping the incredulity from her voice.
Henri shrugged – pulling his shoulders up around his ears had become, Marie noticed, her uncle’s favourite gesture of late – and pulled a face. ‘Some time ago,’ he said vaguely. ‘It’s very funny. You see this other man there,’ he said pointing at Bobby Ewing, who had just sauntered onto the screen. ‘He was dead. For many years. Now they are saying it was all a dream.’ Henri shook his head in wonder. ‘And I thought the Americans knew nothing of existentialism. This could have been written by Sartre.’
‘I don’t think so, Uncle,’ said Marie.
Henri regarded his niece in silence for a second, bestowing one of his special appraising looks upon her. ‘I think,’ he said eventually, ‘it was maybe a mistake that you spent the rest of your childhood here. It has killed your sense of humour.’ He was grinning as he said it.
Marie bent over and kissed Henri’s crinkled forehead. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my sense of humour, you crazy Frenchman,’ she laughed.
‘Who were you talking to on the phone?’ Henri waggled his eyebrows. ‘Was it… a man?’
She almost told him the truth, that she was seriously about to start looking for Henri’s assailant, but decided against it for the time being. It might upset him and she didn’t want to do that, not now he appeared to have recovered his perky old self once again. So instead she opted to go along with whatever it was her uncle was imagining for her. ‘Yes,’ she lied. ‘I have an afternoon date.’
Henri sat back in his armchair with a wistful expression playing across the ruddied features of his face. ‘An afternoon date,’ he repeated, savouring the words as though he were sucking on one of his favoured fruit drops. ‘How romantic. I hope it rains for you.’
Henri winked. ‘There’s nothing like rain for a good excuse to huddle close.’ He gave her a saucy grin. ‘I cannot remember how many women I have seduced on the pretext of keeping dry.’ More eyebrow waggling, another prolific Henri gesture.
‘How do you know they didn’t seduce you?’ Marie asked playfully.
Henri feigned offence, folding his arms and sulking in a huff. ‘It pains me that you doubt my prowess in these matters,’ he growled.
‘Uncle,’ she whispered in his ear, ‘I think you’ve been here too long. It’s killed your sense of humour.’
Henri’s answering grin was warm and infectious and Marie smiled even wider back at him. ‘I’m going to get changed,’ she told him. ‘I’ll leave you to your modern day existentialism.’
Henri watched Marie disappear and then turned his attention back to the rerun of events unfolding on the television. Bobby and JR were arguing. ‘Idiots,’ said Henri.
Marie had decided to get off the bus early and walk the rest of the way. Despite Henri’s best wishes, the day looked like it was going to be fairly pleasant. It wasn’t hot but it wasn’t cold either, the clouds in the sky unthreatening. She knew she had been spoiled by the weather in Barcelona, with its five month summers and balmy nights, but she was determined to make the most of whatever the British stratosphere had to offer while she walked beneath it.
She had arranged to meet Bolton in one of the pubs that overlooked the part of the canal that wound through the back of the city centre. As chance would have it, the place Marie had chosen – a place she had spotted during her exploration that first afternoon back – was The Fat Bishop, the pub where Chester Guberson had had his life ripped inside out. The fallout from that fateful night, however, had long since been mopped up and disinfected and, but for the twitch of the barman whenever anybody farted, you would never know what had taken place there. Some people knew, of course, but given the Bishop’s location, the pub didn’t really cater to regulars as such, not at night, and so sales were the same as ever, a fact for which the proprietor was solemnly grateful.
She arrived half an hour before the arranged time, so she strolled along the canal bank for a while. They were going to meet outside the pub so she would be able to see him when he turned up. He had told her that she should be able to recognise him from the photograph printed alongside his articles. She told him that she would keep a sharp lookout for a slightly out-of-focus, monochrome man, to which he had responded with an appreciative chuckle.
There was a warm breeze coming in off the dark, rippling waters of the canal and Marie felt comfortable enough to remove her jacket and carry it slung over her shoulder. Every now and then a barge would slowly wind its way past and sometimes there would be an exchange of friendly waving or a brief nod of acknowledgement. All in all, she was feeling happier than she had been when she first arrived. The spiralling miasma of dark introspection had steadily begun to dissipate since her uncle had got better and, doubtlessly more significant this, she had decided to do something constructive.
She sat down on a bench and drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs until it was impossible to take in any more air and holding it before breathing out in a slow, steady stream of cooled air. She tried to pinpoint why she hadn’t been feeling herself for so long. It had nothing to do with her parents; that had been assimilated a long time ago, and Henri had certainly helped put most of that pain behind her. Maybe she had been approaching a premature mid-life crisis. She didn’t really believe that, either. After all, it wasn’t like she was struggling to live particularly; she had a job and an apartment, she was intelligent, attractive and she was living where she wanted to. Yet a creeping sense of pointlessness, of futility, had been edging its way across her vision of the world. Sudden bouts of guilt or feelings of hopelessness would assail her generally calm composure; a nice walk by the beach would lead to melancholy navel-gazing, a sandwich to thoughts of starving Africans. She hadn’t spoken to anyone about it (Henri had been right, everybody had their secrets); she had simply hoped it would all magically go away.
She now thought it was purpose that she had been lacking. What she had, work, a home, these were only details; they did not set her apart from the world. But perhaps they were all worthless without a sense of purpose. She held no illusions that as far as purpose went, trying to catch the Scatologist was probably a bit on the fantastical side, and could not last for very long. But it was a start, a point in the right direction. Call it a practice run, she told herself. After that, who knew? She checked her watch. Bolton would be arriving soon.
‘Mr. Bolton?’ Marie held out her hand.
‘Please,’ said the thin, dark haired man, taking her hand and shaking it. ‘Call me Chris.’
‘Okay Chris,’ she said. They stood there staring at each other for a second. ‘You can call me Marie.’
‘Great. Shall we go in,’ the journalist was saying, pointing towards the doors. Marie nodded and they started moving.
Inside, the pub was lit mostly by the daylight coming in through the big windows looking out onto the canal. The lunchtime crowd had been and gone, leaving the pub looking sparse and vaguely unpopular. The wood and upholstery did a good job of insulating the interior from the noise of the city as the doors closed behind them. Marie’s ears popped. ‘Take a seat over there,’ said Bolton, pointing her to a clean table in a discreet corner, away from the alien honking of the fruit machines. ‘I’ll get some drinks. What are you having?’ Normally she would have asked for white wine but having experienced the difference in quality since arriving back she went for a gin and tonic instead. It was almost irritating watching the journalist raise one of his eyebrows. He probably thinks I’m a lush, she thought. Great. But then he flashed her a smile. ‘Sounds good to me,’ he said. ‘G&T. Mother’s ruin.’ She just managed to stop herself from wincing.
She sat at the table and looked over to where the journalist was leaning against the bar, unconsciously sticking out his bony backside, while a sullen-looking waiter poured the drinks. By the look of it, Bolton was trying to tell a joke but the barman was having none of it. He looked crestfallen when he got to the table holding a tray.
‘Killjoy?’ Marie asked, flicking her head towards the barman.
‘All part of the job,’ he said, shrugging. He sat down opposite, facing her. She watched him take a thoughtful sip of his gin as he peered about, sizing up the pub. His attention soon wandered back to where Marie was sitting. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what’s up?’
‘It’s like I said on the phone, my uncle was a victim of this Scatologist of yours…’
‘He’s not my Scatologist.’ He sounded annoyed. Marie supposed that any connection with the Scatologist would be an uncomfortable one.
‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘I thought… well… it’s really more a matter of… um.’
‘What?’ The annoyance was gone, replaced by a gentler, coaxing tone.
‘I’d like to help you,’ she told him.
‘Help me what?’
‘To get him. The Scatologist.’ She watched the journalist lean back and laugh. It wasn’t the reaction she had been hoping for. ‘Hey,’ she said, fearing it was her he was laughing at. ‘I know you’re the expert and that I…’
‘Woah,’ said Bolton, holding his hands up. ‘I’m no expert, believe me. I just wrote some articles about the whole stupid business. I mean, did you read them? They’re all the same. Honestly, I know nothing.’ He sighed and stared into his drink. ‘If you want to get this guy, then good luck to you. You’ll probably be better off by yourself. Really, I don’t think I have anything to offer.’
‘You sound very sure of that,’ she said.
‘I am. To be frank, I was going to go into the office today and ask to be assigned to something else.’
‘I see. So you’re going to let the Scatologist intimidate you into giving up, are you?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
Marie studied the man in front of her. He seemed genuinely puzzled by her last question, not offended or defensive. Maybe he doesn’t know, she suddenly realised. ‘Chris,’ she said, ‘have you seen the paper this morning?’
‘No, not yet. Why?’
‘Hold on a second.’ She stood up and went to the bar. A minute later she was back with a copy of The Contemporary. ‘Look at that,’ she told him, passing him the paper as she sat down. She watched him scan the front page. His face went white.
‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ he whispered.
‘You see,’ said Marie. ‘You can’t back out now; you’ve been chosen, singled out for attention. That makes you a link.’
‘Fuck,’ said Bolton. ‘Fuck it.’
‘Come on,’ Marie implored. ‘Let me help you. We may have different motives but it must be clear that we want the same thing.’
‘What’s that then?’ he mumbled, still staring at the front page.
‘The Scatologist. He’s going to make you feel responsible now.’
‘Then he can fuck off,’ the journalist cried, scrunching the paper down onto the table. ‘The bastard.’ He stared at Marie, the scrutiny making her shift about in her seat. ‘I have to go,’ he said and stood up.
‘Will you at least think about it? About letting me help you.’ She looked into his eyes. ‘About sharing the burden.’ It was clutching at straws, she knew, but she reckoned the distraught-looking man might be more inclined to latch onto the idea of lessened responsibility, especially now. She felt his angry eyes bore into her. Shoot the messenger, she thought. Typical.
‘I have to go,’ he said. Without saying another word, he turned on his heel and left.
She moved closer to the window and watched Bolton hurry along the canal path towards the steps that would take him back to the busyness of the centre. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he finally disappeared from view, then she sat back and let out an exasperated breath. ‘Damn,’ she said. She took a gulp of her gin and was about to consider downing the rest in one when a great crack of thunder exploded out of nowhere, ripping through the sky and making her jump, the contents of her glass emptying itself all down her front. ‘Fabulous,’ she grumbled. ‘Just wonderful.’ Outside, the rain started to fall, slowly at first then building up, a background hiss that grew into a muted roar as the rain pounded against the window. She reached across the table and picked up Bolton’s gin. She raised the glass to the skies. ‘A rainy afternoon date,’ she said. ‘How romantic. Thanks, Uncle.’ She downed half of what was left and, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, wondered if now would be a good time to start smoking.
Thyroid rushed into Henry’s office, waving the paper Marie had given him. ‘Was anybody going to mention this to me at all?’ he yelled.
Henry looked up from the work on his desk. ‘Sorry,’ he said simply. ‘I suppose I assumed you actually read our paper, too.’
Thyroid slumped down opposite Henry. ‘So what does this mean?’
Henry made a face. ‘Nothing much really,’ he said. ‘I imagine the police might tap your phone, and the phones here of course, but other than that, there’s not really that much to go on.’
Thyroid put his head in his hands. ‘So now I’m supposed to feel responsible for this cock-head, am I? I had a feeling that’s what I might end up doing.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ said Henry matter-of-factly. ‘He’s probably just trying to wind you up. You just keep on writing, Christopher. No-one can stop the press, my boy, freedom of speech and all that.’ Thyroid knew there was no point in convincing Henry to let him off the hook now. He felt resigned to his fate.
‘So how do you know this was genuine?’ he asked. ‘Who brought it in?’
‘Well,’ said Henry, ‘whoever it was knew enough to get it here before we started rolling. I got a call from Fabian last night, telling me there was an urgent package requiring my personal attention. So I dashed over here, straight to the printing room and found Fabian looking a little nervous, bless him, waiting there with a sheet a paper in his hand. Our great printing press was silent, holding its breath expectantly…’
‘Please, Henry, no poetics,’ said Thyroid.
‘Oh,’ said Henry, clearly disappointed. ‘Very well then. So Fabian handed me this sheet and there it was, the letter, short and to the point.’
‘And the sender was verified?’
‘Indeed. There was an addendum to the letter. It said we should call a place called Breton, a restaurant specialising in crepes near here. Very nice actually. I’ve been there a couple of times. They do an excellent…’
‘I know the place, Henry. It serves glorified pancakes. So what happened next?’
‘You’re in a foul mood today. I…’ He stopped, aware of the look Thyroid was giving him. ‘Right. Yes. Anyway, it was all rather eerie. The person on the other end of the line had just about said hello when somebody started crying out in the background.’
‘That could have been anything, Henry.’
‘Of course. However, the person who answered the phone then said, and I quote, “Please excuse me, one of my customers seems to be shitting himself”.’
‘Well,’ said Thyroid, defeated, ‘that would seem to clinch it.’
‘I thought so, too. So I told Fabian to get the letter to the boys and tell them we have a new page one.’
‘Yes, that would be the obvious thing to do,’ Thyroid muttered.
‘Thought it might stir things up a bit,’ said Henry happily.
‘Come now,’ said Henry. ‘You really shouldn’t let this upset you. The most you’re going to have to do is very closely watch what you eat when you’re out. Now, I’ll expect your latest piece to talk about this, let the public know we are not to be put off the chase.’
What chase? Thyroid was thinking. There was no chase. The Scatologist put laxatives in someone’s food and a couple of days later Thyroid would tell everyone about it. There was not even the slightest hint of pursuit. ‘Fine,’ he said, fighting a sudden sensation of leaden lethargy to get to his feet as the crappy reality of having a mortgage to pay and a boss he depended on to help him pay it made itself felt.
As he walked back to the elevator, ignoring the glances from the rest of the staff, he started to think about Marie Pawlak. He honestly didn’t think he could help her. But she had suggested she could help him. Share the burden, he remembered her saying. It began to seem like a good idea. Once he was outside, he thought, he would give her a call, hoping he had remembered to bring along the scrap of paper he’d scribbled her number on in the morning.
A week later, Thyroid, Marie and Gary were sitting down together on a bench in the High Street, eating fish and chips. In a wonderful twist of logic, fish and chips had now become the safest thing to eat if you weren’t at home.
Thyroid had indeed called Marie after leaving Henry’s office and they had arranged to meet for dinner in the evening. They had gone to an Indian restaurant, at Marie’s suggestion – she had been dying to go to one since getting off the plane – and, over samosas, bhajis, lamb balti and rice, naan breads, barfi and beer they had talked briefly about the Scatologist (Thyroid apologised for his earlier brusqueness and explained quite frankly how little chance there was that either of them would get close to him but that he did understand her need for resolution and if anything did come up she would be the first to know) and more at length about their respective life stories. That had been a real eye-opener for Thyroid, who had never spilled so much of his soul to someone who was, really, still a total stranger. Yet it had been so comfortable and easy talking to her. And she had been equally as forthcoming in regards to her own thoughts and desires. There had been an immediate trust that Thyroid didn’t want to think about just now but had enjoyed all the same. It was a pleasant evening and at the end Marie had kissed him on the cheek and disappeared into a taxi. They had seen each other every day since; he had even been introduced to Henri Roche. Thyroid had liked him immediately, even if the old man did keep grinning and winking at him whenever he entered the room. It had put Thyroid off his stride a couple of times but he had managed to rally back pretty well without losing too much dignity. He had felt the beginnings of a deeper attraction somewhere in those forgotten parts of his soul but, for the time being, kept them on simmer. His instincts told him this was stupid, but Thyroid wasn’t sure if he was ready to trust his instincts again yet. He knew he was being foolish but there it was.
Once Gary had found out about Marie, he had hounded Thyroid to get them introduced. Thyroid, who had eventually agreed, hadn’t wanted them to get together during the evening (deep in his subconscious Thyroid already pictured evenings with Marie as something they did alone) so he suggested lunch. And here they were, with greasy hands, chatting easily and amiably. In the daylight.
‘If you think about it,’ Gary was saying, ‘the Scatologist has given both of you a reason to get up in the morning. And,’ he added, gazing at the sky like some lovelorn adolescent, ‘he’s also brought the two of you together.’
Marie smiled and put another chip in her mouth. It was easier than responding. She too had been having unexpected feelings about Thyroid, feelings that she wasn’t sure she wanted to investigate just yet, either. But the attraction was there, she knew. It was like being at school, she thought with an inward shudder of embarrassment. He wasn’t even her type. Whatever that meant anymore.
Thyroid wanted to lift his portion of wet, battered fish and wrap it around Gary’s chops, feeling a similar sort of childish shame. Gary was staring at Thyroid, his face a mask of mock innocence. ‘What?’ he mumbled through a mouthful of masticated potato. Unseen by Marie, Thyroid shot him a warning glance.
‘Fine, fine,’ mouthed Gary as best he could. He pulled an invisible zipper across his mouth.
‘If only,’ Thyroid told him.
They ate their fish and chips in silence for a while. It was Gary who spoke first. ‘You hear about that magistrate?’ he asked, sucking on his fingers.
‘I did,’ Marie answered. ‘They found him trouser-less in a red-light district, didn’t they?’
‘’s right,’ said Gary. ‘Massive hole in his skull.’
‘Amazing,’ said Thyroid, some of the old moroseness returning to his voice. ‘There’s a serial killer on the loose in Birmingham and what do I get to write about? A serial laxative lover.’ Marie and Gary were laughing. ‘It’s fucking true,’ he cried out, acting hurt. ‘I mean, we’ve got some guy blasting people’s minds away with a gun, by all accounts to punish them for their misdeeds against the common man, and here I am chasing shit and getting nowhere near it. It just isn’t fair.’ He munched on a chip sulkily.
‘Aaah, poor little Thyroid,’ said Gary, making his bottom lip quiver as if he were about to blub.
‘Seriously though,’ said Thyroid, throwing a burnt, mangled chip at a pigeon’s head. ‘All I’m doing is making sure this idiot stays in the paper and Henry in the money.’
‘Maybe Henry is the Scatologist,’ said Gary. ‘And all this has just been about selling the rag.’
‘Fuck off,’ said Thyroid.
‘Why not?’ asked Marie. ‘Is it totally implausible?’
Thyroid regarded her for a moment and decided that her question was asked in earnest. ‘It is if you know Henry,’ he told her.
‘Oh yeah?’ said Gary. ‘And what do you know about him?’
‘Can we drop this, please? Henry’s like my dad, man.’
‘Fine, whatever you say.’ Gary turned his head to watch a couple of schoolgirls in uniform walk by, his eyes fixed on their legs. ‘Only,’ he began as he turned back to Thyroid, ‘did you know your “dad” originally graduated as a pharmacist?’
Marie leant herself around Thyroid and locked eyes with Gary, suddenly very animated. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked.
Gary nodded. ‘Yeah. I did a little checking. So far, the only person to benefit from these attacks, apart from Thyroid here – and since he doesn’t really see it that way, it doesn’t count – is Henry. For every new incident, he sells a shit-load of papers, if you’ll pardon the expression. Of course, that doesn’t mean much in itself, but when you stick it next to a Masters in pharmacy…’ He shrugged. ‘Do the maths yourself.’
Thyroid was shaking his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that. I can’t believe Henry would even need to… No. No, it’s impossible.’
‘I’m just saying, that’s all,’ said Gary.
‘I think you should at least look into it,’ said Marie. ‘It’s the only lead you’ve had since you started.’
Thyroid felt miserable all over again. He couldn’t very well tell her that he wasn’t prepared to follow this particular trail after promising he would do all he could to find her some answers and some closure. But he couldn’t accept that Henry was responsible for the violent involuntary bowel movements of a small percentage of Birmingham’s population. Yet if it was true…
Thyroid stood up. ‘I have to go and speak to someone,’ he told them. He looked at Marie. ‘You wanna come along?’
She looked disappointed. ‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘I have to take Henri to the hospital. They want to check up on his heart. I promised I’d go with him. You can give me a lift, though, if it’s not out of the way.’
Thyroid grinned and held out a hand to help her up. ‘It isn’t,’ he assured her.
‘I’ll just sit here and finish my chips,’ said Gary, giving them both a cheeky wink. ‘It was nice to meet you, sweetheart,’ he said, eying Marie up and down.
‘Likewise,’ she said, being diplomatic.
‘And you,’ he said, jabbing a finger at Thyroid. ‘You keep me informed, too, ok?’
‘See you later, Gary,’ said Marie.
Thyroid gave his friend a quick wave before heading off after Marie, who pleasantly surprised him by taking his arm.