The stench in the small room was completely overpowering, the air foetid with the sour smell of stale booze and soiled bedding, mixed in with something else. Something worse, almost like meat that had been left out of a fridge too long and was in the first malodorous stages of decay.

A shaft of sunlight broke through the grimy windowpane, highlighting the sleeping figure of a man of indeterminate age. Curled up in slumber as he was, the countenance was that of someone who looked to have been, and indeed still was, in the grip of some intense private suffering.

Outside a rubbish truck made its noisy way past, its warning alarm shattering the quiet of the street and startling the bed’s occupant into premature wakefulness. Sitting slowly upright he wrestled to free his legs from the mass of tangled, damp sheets. Realising the appalling state of the bedding, stained with what looked like all manner of bodily excretions, the man grimaced in disgust. What a god-awful mess, his mess; and he appeared to have been sleeping in it quite happily.

He realised with some surprise that his hand was trembling as he used a corner of the grimy sheet to wipe his clammy face. God, just look at the state of me, this has to be the mother of all hangovers. Must have been a hell of a good night down the Nag’s Head, he thought, pity I can’t actually remember any of it. Gently feeling around in his mouth with his finger, he noticed that his teeth, or what was left of them after years of neglect, were a bit wobbly. Probing further back, using his swollen tongue, he was rewarded for his efforts with a sudden burst of blood from the surrounding gum. The saltiness of it took him by surprise but he felt grateful for the liquid as it trickled down his throat.

He was so parched it hurt to swallow. Crusts of dried saliva had collected in the creases at either side of his mouth, and his tongue felt like something slimy had died on it. Desperate to ease his aching throat he reached out his hand for the glass of water on the bedside table, only to pull back in irritation upon realising the glass was empty. As was the jug beside it, a dead insect stuck forlornly to the base.

Shit!

Jerking his legs angrily out from the covers he sat on the edge of the bed fuming. His head spun at the sudden movement, and he realised care would have to be taken or he’d end up throwing up. Where the hell was the missus? Why hadn’t she at least been in to check on him, to see if he needed anything? Oh, yeah, like water. Bitch.

A large bead of waxy sebum, mixed with sweat, rolled slowly from his hairline down his cheek, closely followed by several more, to land damply on the tatty T-shirt he wore to sleep in.

Well there’s nothing else for it, he sighed, it looked like the best thing was to drag his sorry carcass downstairs and face his loving wife, the selfish cow. Fancy leaving him in such a state, there’d be hell to pay for this. He’d let her have her usual rant about his good-for-nothing mates, and him staying out boozing until the wee small hours, then perhaps, if he was lucky, she’d take pity on him and make him a bit of breakfast. If indeed it was morning and breakfast was the required meal. In his parlous state he wasn’t sure of either.

Moving unsteadily across the carpet, which felt unpleasantly sticky under his bare feet, he was grateful to reach the door. As he looked down he couldn’t help but notice that a couple of his toenails looked decidedly odd. Well not so much odd as badly discoloured, as with a nasty bruise. God, he wondered, what had he gotten into last night? The skin on the top of his feet looked discoloured as well, almost bluish in fact. Must have bashed them on something he reckoned, but what?

Turning the handle, the door remained fast. Confused, he tried again. Now that’s odd, his sluggish brain tried to ponder, the blasted door won’t open. Although he could get the handle to turn the door remained stubbornly shut. Through his blinding headache the thought occurred to him that it must be stuck somehow. Best get the WD40 out. Well maybe later. Or better idea,  get the missus to sort it.

Yanking at the door in his frustration he peered at the keyhole and noticed that the little brass key wasn’t in its usual place. What the hell, he wondered, dark thoughts creeping into his consciousness, the silly cow has only gone and locked him in! He reckoned he must have done something really bad to piss her off last night, although it wouldn’t have been the first time, and he was sure as shit it wasn’t likely to be the last.

And he needed to pee, right now. His unaccustomed exertions had only served to make him painfully aware of the urgent pressure on his ageing bladder. Boy did he need to go for a slash. Looking around the room in desperation his gaze rested on the bedside table. Of course, he smiled to himself in relief, the empty bottle. He might as well put it to good use, and anyway the aroma in here couldn’t get much worse.

As he stood there relieving himself he looked idly out of the bedroom window to the street below. A middle-aged woman was walking her pet greyhound along the pavement outside his house. Probably choosing where it wants to take a dump, he thought to himself. Stupid bloody animals, give me a nice big furry cat any day. Choosing that moment to glance up at the house, she saw him standing in the window bay and her expression froze in shock. A look of absolute horror passed over her features; she tightened her grip on the dog’s lead and practically dragged the poor creature away and down the road.

Huh, he thought, too posh to piss are we, darling?

While debating whether to sling the whole bottle or just its unsavoury contents out of the window, and so give the nosy neighbours something else to moan about, he realised that he couldn’t get the stupid catch open. It was funny that he hadn’t noticed until now, some idiot must have nailed it shut. Or perhaps his wife had done it in an effort to keep burglars and other unsavoury types out.

What the hell was the old bitch playing at, locking the door and sealing the window shut; his mind was full of suspicion. Was it all because he’d been out on the lash a few times lately? OK, so it had been a bit more than a few times if he was honest, although strangely the more he thought about it the more he realised he didn’t actually remember when it was he had last been out. Or even where he’d been. And all this blasted thinking was doing his head in.

Glancing down at the contents of the bottle he let out a gasp as the colour of the liquid registered in his head. Instead of his usual cloudy yellow; the doctor was forever nagging him about that, it looked to have more of a reddish hue. Trying to work out if this was normal, he couldn’t make up his mind what colour it ought to have been: yellow, or yellowish at any rate, that’s what he remembered. And Dear Lord, how it stank. Even in his fragile state he realised something was wrong. Seriously fucking wrong.

And now just to add to his misery, his stomach began giving him pain, really hurting like he hadn’t eaten a decent meal in days.

A drink, God he needed a drink. Probably a whole bottle would work, a hair of the dog, and that was just for starters; and to get the hell out of this stinking hole. What did she think she was doing to him, torturing him like this. It just wasn’t fair. If he were an animal the RSPCA would go after the bitch.

She hadn’t better have gone off on one of her endless shopping trips with the other old bags in her coven and left him here to rot, he fumed. At the thought of being stuck in this room for much longer, hungry, thirsty and wallowing in his own filth, a self-pitying tear welled up at the corner of his right eye. As he wiped it away he was surprised to see his fingers came away red. With what looked like blood. Apparently his blood. A wave of nausea passed over him. Now what on earth is going on here? He knew he was no MENSA candidate but surely no amount of alcohol in the world could make a person’s eyes weep bloody tears.

With his heart pounding and stomach churning, he staggered over to the dressing table and peered anxiously at his face in the mirror. At least he assumed that what was looking back at him was his face. God this mirror needs a damn good clean, he thought, not believing his eyes. Peering more closely at his reflection in the looking glass he was startled by what it revealed. A pale, clammy looking creature stared right back at him, hair plastered to the scalp by great rivulets of sweat. A smear of blood glistened along one cheek, like the slimy trail left by a snail or some such mollusc. A pair of frightened eyes gazed back at him, the pupils barely discernible, the whites undeserving of the description in their bloodshot state. Dark shadows under his eyes looked like ripening bruises against his ashen complexion, as if someone had pressed their thumb into the soft, relenting skin of a peach. Opening his mouth he bared his yellowing teeth at himself in a parody of a grin. God, his gums were in bad shape, they were pulling away from the base of the enamel like an army in retreat.

This couldn’t just be the booze. Okay, he liked a drink as much as the next man but this was something much more drastic than too many pints chased down by too many fags. No, he must be coming down with some crappy bug. That’s why it was so dammed hard for him to focus on anything. A fever, surely, perhaps that stupid bird thingy they kept yacking on about on the telly. Raising his hand to his forehead to check his temperature he was taken aback to find it cold, not hot, as he expected.

That wasn’t right, his tired brain was telling him, if I’m sick with the flu or whatever, my head should be hotter, surely? It made no sense.

Come to think of it, he was shivering a little. Perhaps the sensible thing to do would be to get back into bed and sleep it off. She’ll be home shortly like as not, and with a bit of R&R I’ll soon be on the mend, he calculated. A nice hot mug of tea and a cheese and onion pasty would work wonders. Although, come to think of it he quite fancied the idea of a big juicy steak, preferably one that had barely been shown the pan, so it was still swimming in its bloody secretions. Nothing that a good vet couldn’t revive, as his old dad used to say.

Although, an idea that he wasn’t usually that keen on red meat came to him, being much more of a pie and chips kind of guy, but a high or low temperature, or whatever it was, could do funny things to a fella.

The light in the room began steadily to fade as the day moved on towards dusk. As he lay in his manky bed, feeling more and more sorry for himself, the man began to doze fitfully, unable to snatch more than a few minutes of sleep at a time because of the gnawing emptiness in his stomach.

In a wakeful moment he considered that perhaps he should have another crack at that door, see if it was just stuck after all.

As he shuffled wearily across the carpet he was only vaguely aware of a feeling of pressure in his right foot, almost as if something was trapped under the flesh, struggling to get out.

All he could think was that this strange sickness was really getting its hooks into him, although even now he couldn’t explain how his forehead remained so cool to the touch. Surprising cool, in fact, positively icy. Perhaps he was suffering from some weird bug that made things like body temperature go into reverse. Yes, that would explain it.

Half-heartedly he placed his hand on the door handle and was amazed to find that the knob turned at the first attempt. What the fuck? Don’t tell me the bloody thing’s been unlocked all the time, he thought, now in a real fury, and I’ve been stuck in here all day for nothing.

Poking his head out the doorway he looked for any signs of life but heard or saw nothing out of the ordinary. The stupid long-life bulb illuminated the top of the stairs with its usual feeble glow, leaving him to stumble around in the Stygian gloom.

Hell, that would explain how he managed to knacker his foot in.

Idly scratching at his armpit while he mused on this explanation, the poor soul was completely unprepared for what happened next. Thwack, a baseball bat connected with the back of his skull with a sickening crunch of splintering bone. Lurching forward, thrusting both hands out in front of him in a vain attempt to break his fall, he barely had time to think before a second savage blow shut down his brain activity and his existence, such as it was, was snuffed out like a candle’s flame.

“See, Beryl, you can’t be too careful with his sort. Get the bugger while you can and make sure he stays down, I say. Always hit twice, never just the once.”

As she wiped the bat clean of blood and gore, Violet smiled sweetly at her oldest and dearest friend who was surveying the wreck of her late husband sprawled on the landing. “Although I’m sorry to say it’ll take more than a bit of elbow grease to get that nasty stain out of the carpet.”

Copyright © 2013 Paget Urner

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