By Samantha Heng
Ben walked quickly, his long legs striding to the rhythm of his breath. The cloud cover was thickening and the last thing he wanted was to get caught in the rain. That was the thing about living in the country. Everyone lived far away from each other and nothing else stood between them. There was hardly any cover around when it poured. And it poured out here. It was crazy, the amount of rain the land had seen over the past few months.
He had been living out here for almost a year now. When his uncle Mad Joe died, they found that in his will he had bestowed Ben his country house. It was proper rural where Ben lived. Large swathes of land surrounded his single-storey, brick-walled house with a wooden roof. He didn't keep any animals, like country people usually did, nor did he grow any vegetables. Ben lived alone and went into town once a week for things he needed: milk, eggs, bread, shaving cream, soap, water, books.
To say that he was the kind of person that liked being alone was not entirely accurate, because with the right people, Ben could spend all day and night with them without qualms. But, he found most people boring, and even if they were any bit interesting, he had not yet met anyone that held his interest for more than two hours at a stretch. The only person he could really get along with was his uncle Mad Joe.
Before him, the country house had mostly been empty. Except when Mad Joe brought his family there during the summer, nobody used it. Now that Mad Joe was gone, Ben inherited it and moved in as soon as the week after. His parents, who he had been living with, tried to convince him to lease the place as a summer home. They didn't want him to leave. But Ben had turned down the idea flatly, kissed them both goodbye, and packed his things.
He had Mad Joe to thank for this. His uncle, who had been more like a father to him than his own strict and religious father was, had taken it on himself to look after Ben even in his afterlife. What killed Mad Joe was a bland oversight and as far as Ben was concerned, an absolute farce. He had been funny when he was alive, and even in death, he had to make people laugh.
Mad Joe worked in a small construction company as a foreman, and every day he risked his safety at building sites precariously stacked with heavy steel beams suspended mid-air and areas of wet cement left to dry without warning signs. But the way he died was so banal it almost put the rest of his life to shame. He died because one night, he had come home so blind drunk that he had fallen in the ditch near his house and cracked his skull. In the morning, his wife Julia had screamed when she found him there, ashen-white and definitely dead. He left behind one hysterical wife and three children, all under the age of 10, along with his accumulated wealth over the short course of his life.
Ben didn't go to the funeral. He wore black that day, but decided to stay home. He still lived with his parents then, and with them gone from the house, he could enjoy a spot of silence. He played cards and read a few books. He couldn't bear the thought of seeing his uncle lying in the coffin, where he really shouldn't have been. What a stupid man! Such an unheroic death. If people could go this way, Ben couldn't fathom why he should still be alive!
The night that Mad Joe had been drinking he was actually out with Ben. They were at the pub. It was a Friday evening and the pub was full of people. Loud music was playing and people were playing darts or pool or dancing or talking loudly with their friends. Bob Dylan's folksy twang filled the room like balm to a hard day's work. It was slightly smoky and the atmosphere was nice and relaxed as everyone was slightly tipsy.
"Geena is thinking of moving back to town."
A slow song came on and someone booed while a man wearing a blue shirt and brown pants started a cheek-to-cheek dance with a woman dressed in a tight white top and black jeans. Ben had noticed her the minute they entered the bar. She was sexy, alright. Too sexy for that slug slobbering all over her face!
Mad Joe tipped back his glass and cleaned out its contents. His words pulled Ben back to the present. Geena was Julia's sister, and she and Mad Joe had been sleeping together for God knows how long. Even before Mad Joe got together with Julia, he had been in love with Geena for years. But they never really made it as a couple somehow because someone else was always in the way. When they met for the first time, Geena was married. Heartbroken, Mad Joe had turned to the next best thing, her sister, and somehow got himself married, too. Nobody knew about their affair, but Ben.
"No way! What's going to happen?"
"I've been thinking about it. I think I might leave Julia. I don't know how or when. But I am in love with Geena and this time we want to make it work."
"How about the kids?"
"They will live with Julia. It's for the best, really. Fucking hell, I can't even take care of myself. How am I going to take care of the kids?"
"Where are you going to live?"
"I was thinking of moving out to the country house. Fuck this town and everyone here. I want to start afresh. A new life. You know what I mean, son?"
Ben nodded slowly. He wasn't exactly sure what Mad Joe meant, but in a way, he did. In a town as small as this where everyone knew each other, it sometimes got hard to breathe. People in small towns thrived on gossip and if there weren't any gossip, they'd make up all kinds of long and short tales. Small minds were boring, and Mad Joe was ready to let his wild illicit love completely take over his life.
That night after they had said goodbye and stumbled their separate ways home, Ben never thought it would be his last goodbye to his uncle.
The only thing Ben wasn't prepared for was that the country house stood a few stones' throw away from a slaughterhouse. Especially in the hot summer months, it reeked to the heavens. Man alive! Even in the deepest winter, the smell carried itself across the bitterly cold winds and polluted the air like some nightmarish perfume made of rotting fats and blood.
Ben had noticed the smell on the very first day he moved in. Had the slaughterhouse always been there? He thought it was strange that he had never noticed it before.
At first it was still bearable. Ben pinched his nose every time he passed it, cursing the way the smell contaminated the picturesque view of rolling hills under endless skies. What was going on inside? He imagined moving belts of carcasses, whole cows hanging on hooks, the floor slippery with bloody slime. Did cows scream when they were killed? Did they know when they were going to die? He had once seen a documentary on television about abattoirs. The way the pigs would squeal as they were getting rounded up to get zapped.
At home, he would still be able to smell that putrid stench that seemed to lodge itself in one's nostrils. On his first weekly run into town, he had bought air fresheners and placed them throughout the house. He counted exactly 20—lavender, lemon, lilies. He closed all the windows hoping to block out the smell. He had also purchased a variety of women's perfumes hoping to expel the smell with the strong scent of springtime flowers. Every day when he woke up he would spray the two bedrooms in the house, the living room, and the kitchen. The result was a nauseating mix of perfume and decomposing meat.
With the impending rain now the air was wet and heavy, making it the perfect sponge for smells. It intensified and amplified everything, and as the slaughterhouse came into view and the first whiffs started to creep up on him, Ben also started to find life insufferable. He never told anyone about this problem, because what could they do anyway? It was his decision to continue living out here, and therefore his mess to resolve. Get over it, you pussy. He laughed at his inability to think outside the box. Think! Mad Joe would know what to do. What can you do? There must be a way.
On this day it was especially bad. He wrapped his scarf around his face and took in only little breaths. The iron smell of blood followed him all the way home and even as he pushed his key into the lock and entered the house, it was still there.
A visceral darkness took hold of him and he doubled over in pain. Goddammit! No living soul should have to deal with this. He wouldn't wish this on his worst enemy. If Mad Joe were here he would surely be laughing at Ben. They would crack open a couple of cold ones and sit out on the front porch. Hell, Mad Joe being Mad Joe, he would probably even breathe in deeper than usual and taunt the dead cows for being such smelly rotting bastards. The thought made Ben laugh. The more Ben thought about Mad Joe, the more he calmed down.
Crack open a cold one and forget about it. He stood at the counter and drank his beer. Keep your cool. He tried to clear his head and block out the smell. He had learnt a few meditation techniques from the counselling sessions he went to last year. Train your mind to let go of stuff. Make yourself think of other things. Tidy! He got a scrub out and began cleaning the floor, digging out dirt that collected in the grooves of the wood. He soaped up a few washcloths and wiped the surfaces of tables and chairs till they shone. His fingers were rubbed raw from the vigorous mopping. When he was done he straightened up and surveyed his work.
The house was spotless. His hands were chafed and his mind was blank. It worked. He cracked open another beer and took it out to the verandah. The sun was setting, the sky filling with streaks of purple and red. A proper country sunset. It was beautiful. A flock of birds cut through the twilit heavens and disappeared into the distance. Ben gasped. The wonders of nature always seized him in his tracks.
Ben wished Mad Joe were here to see it. You foolish man! What a way to go. After his uncle had died, Ben received one call from Geena. It was about a week later. He had already moved into the country house by then. The phone when it rang was shrill and disturbed the eerie nighttime silence of the house.
"Hello." Geena's sultry voice was not lost on him.
A pause. He could see her fiddling with the telephone cord. Her nails painted crimson red, sharp as knives. She was the sort of woman one would find typically beautiful, with soft curls and big eyes. He imagined her serious face, sweet as an angel.
"I'm sorry about your uncle, Ben. I… I am sorry. I know how close you were. He talked about you an awful lot."
"Nobody saw it coming, Geena. Not even the old man himself. How are you? Are you in town?"
"I was, but I left right after the funeral. I couldn't stay. You know how it is… I don't know why I'm calling. I guess I wanted to hear from someone that knew about us."
"Mad Joe was crazy in love with you, you know. I never knew what to think of it. But he seemed very sure. We were together in the bar the night before. He talked about starting a new life with you."
Another pause. Geena sighed audibly. She started saying something and stopped, choking on her words. Ben heard a sniffle and then a loud sob. He waited.
"Did he say… Do you think… You know that Julia knows, don't you?"
"No. I always thought he hid it well. And you were never in town, anyway. How could she have known?"
"At the funeral she wouldn't look at me. I mean… it could be something else, of course. There's always been something between us. Some kind of heat. Sibling rivalry, I guess. But anyway, I guess it doesn't matter now."
"Will you ever come back? This country house was going to be yours. Mad Joe said it himself. He was going to move out of town and come here with you."
"I don't know. It's hard. I'm in a difficult situation. It's hard to say, Ben. But I don't think I'll come back. There's nothing waiting for me now. Nothing holding me back."
"I miss him, Geena. He was a miserable, foul-mouthed man, but I miss him."
"I miss him too, Ben. You take care of yourself now, Ben. Please promise me you will."
"I promise. You, too. Bye, Geena."
Ben lit a cigarette and puffed on it with intent. Then another. It was starting to rain. Lightning flashed angrily across the sky. A menacing rumbling rippled through the house. He breathed in deeply. The smell returned, a grisly smell of dead meat. He filled his lungs with it and let go. Let go of things. Let go of life. He turned and went back inside.
The next day as dawn cracked, old farmer Mills got up and tended to his chickens. He refreshed their water containers and spread out poultry feed. He even threw in a generous portion of potato skins. His chickens loved that. They gave him eggs and meat, and he treated them well in return. He was a good farmer, loyal to old world values and practices, the life he knew growing up as a small farm boy helping out on his father's farm.
But he was old and handicapped now, his leg muscles significantly weakened by the good honest hard work he had put in for years. His wife had passed away from cancer 10 years ago and they never had children, so he knew a thing or two about loneliness. Age had so many ways of making a person feel less than himself, unlike himself, but then it also gave you power and wisdom through experience, and you have got to hold on to that, because that was the only way your life was going to be worth anything good.
Old Mills was a realistic kind of guy, and knew in his heart of hearts that he wasn't going to live much longer. He spent his days quietly on his farm, feeding his chickens, watering his vegetable garden. He was 82 and couldn't walk without his crutches, which he used to hobble around on all day. He grew tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, yellow squash and green beans.
Once a week, the milkman, out of kindness for the old man, would deliver newspapers, bread and cheese on top of a four pint bottle of milk to the house. Sometimes he would throw in some salami wrapped in wax paper or potatoes or a toothbrush or whatever else he thought Old Mills might need, because the old man would never ask for anything.
That morning after feeding his chickens, Mills sat at his table drinking coffee from an aluminium mug and ate a breakfast of bread and butter. His bones didn't hurt that morning, which was a good sign. It looked like it was going to be good clear day, after last night's ferocious thunderstorm. Thankfully the rain didn't completely destroy his vegetables, miraculously leaving them almost unscathed. Only the poor soft tomatoes suffered a bruising, but even then, the damage was not all that bad.
The morning birds were chirping, the earth at peace. Everyone and everything felt in place, the perfect universe rotating blissfully on its axis. Mills cranked up his radio. Sammy Davis Jr.'s 'Mr Bojangles' was playing, and old Mills sang along under his breath, relishing the nostalgia of big dance halls and that time he had asked Greta, a young and shy girl in a yellow dress, to dance. Greta, who had become his wife.
Her pretty black hair framed her tiny face. She wasn't what people would call beautiful. Her eyes were set far apart and her nose a little pudgy. But he had been smitten from the get-go, drawn by the elegant way she held herself. She was intelligent, far smarter than he was. And he fell in love with her kindness. That was their first dance and then for 40 wonderful years they were married, and forever he was hers like she was his.
It was at that moment, as Mills stood by the sink lost in thoughts, the way people in love sometimes lost themselves, that he was blissfully oblivious to the rampage that was going on outside his house. Heavy boots stomping through his vegetable garden, crushing the cucumbers and green beans. His chickens, alarmed, running all over the place squawking in terror, hitting against the wire to escape. A loud pounding on his door was what jolted him back to brutal reality, tearing him away from the soft dreams of yesterday.
He pulled himself away from the sink, wondering who it could be so urgently at this hour. It was only early! But country people woke up early, and Mills was brought up to be kind and patient. He didn't make it halfway to the door when the same heavy boots that had just moments earlier trashed his vegetable garden, still unbeknownst to him, kicked down the solid wooden door clean off its hinges.
"What in the…."
"Tell me! It stinks out here, doesn't it? It fucking reeks, right? I've been killing myself in this swamp! Do you smell it? Do you?"
Mills began to retreat, moving backward to the sink. He knew the man had been drinking because his eyes were bloodshot. He recognised an alcoholic when he saw one because he had used to be one. And in this state and rage, they were unstoppable. Some men grew jolly when they drank, but some reached a place so dark and deep inside that they found where their inner devils pitched tents.
This man was all limbs and strength, pulling objects to the floor, throwing things around. He was young and full of energy. The thing about the country was that houses were so far apart that neighbours didn't know each other.
What was his story? Why was he here? What was he on about? All these questions bugged Mills but he knew better than to ask them now. Not when the man was smashing everything up. He had to be calmed down. He had to be treated with patience. Mills was no longer able to restrain him. Heck, he barely had the strength to lift a basket of potatoes these days. Next to the sink was the larder, and behind the large cookie tin in the bottom shelf, Mills had hid a gun. He had never planned on using it, of course, but out in the country, you always had to have a gun. It was just the way it was.
Trembling, and still facing the shouting enraged man, Mills nimbly reached behind him and moved the tin aside. He found the cool metal of the gun and grasped it weakly. With shaking fingers, he pointed the weapon at the man, who was now skulking the corners of the house, his nose constantly making sniffling noises. He had no intention of shooting. In fact, Mills really didn't know what he should do. He didn't want to kill the man.
"What are you doing, old man? Why are you pointing that at me? Your house reeks all the same. Mine does. Yours does. It's a wasteland out here!"
The man lunged at Mills, without care or concern, and easily wrested the gun from his hands.
"Point that at me, huh? I'll teach you, old man."
The last thing Mills heard was a loud crackling sound that split open the sticky hot skies, and then he saw Greta's face, warm and shiny. Oh, my beautiful spirit! My angel! I'm here at last! She opened her arms and he fell into them, his love for her covering them both like a soft blanket.
'Mr Bojangles' was still playing in his tiny kitchen, Sammy's smoky vocals filling the room. "He spoke with tears of 15 years how his dog and him/Travelled about/The dog up and died/He up and died/Twenty years he still grieves."QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019