Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Stitched Up by Charlie Galbraith


It was 10 o’clock in the morning and Agnes Sykes had been sat at her kitchen table for over two hours. She was contemplating the alarming discrepancy between her winter fuel allowance cheque and her most recent gas bill, and was now on her third cup of tea. These days she took it with goat’s milk and two sugars. She had switched to goat’s milk after developing an allergy to cow’s some years previous, and had it delivered every week from the farm on the hill, behind the research centre. She had only recently begun taking sugar. When she was a child her mother warned her off it with the admonishment that it would rot her teeth. Of course, after she had had her dentures fitted there was nothing left to rot. That was one good thing about getting old, thought Agnes - a welcome addition to a depressingly sparse litany. But her saccharine tea was of little comfort to her now as she stood up, walked over to the boiler and turned off the heating.

To make the most of the ebbing warmth she took the newspaper she had bought earlier that morning into the sitting room and plonked herself in Fred’s old chair, which was situated next to the largest radiator in the house. Fred’s chair used to be over in the corner of the room, facing the telly; the four deep indentations it had left in the carpet there over the years were still visible. Her son, Gerald, had helped her move it to its current position last Christmas. He had only been to see her twice since then. Agnes had never seen eye to eye with Gerald’s wife, Sheila. Gerald said that this was because they were so similar. Both wife and mother were insulted by this comparison. Recently, it seemed to Agnes that Gerald had made his choice. Sheila had surprised Gerald with the news that she was taking him to the Bahamas for Christmas; in turn, Gerald had surprised Agnes with this news. The latter surprise was received a little more frostily than the first. In mitigation, Gerald promised that he would stop by on the 24th before he left. Agnes regarded this as a meagre and underwhelming gesture. The fact remained that the fat turkey in the fridge would go to waste this Christmas; Agnes couldn’t see that there was any point in cooking it just for herself. There was a whole shelf full of sprouts too, and Gerald was the only one who liked them anyway. And the desserts! She could never manage more than two profiteroles; what was she supposed to do with the other 10? She couldn’t throw all that out in the bins outside; she would be overrun by rats and urban foxes and all manner of vermin. Still, it would be nice to have some company over the holiday period. Perhaps she needn’t even leave it in the bins for them. Suppose she just left the door open and set the table as usual. There was a fox that got in through a window a few streets away and nearly made off with a baby. Surely a roast turkey was far more appetizing than a baby...

A violent shiver derailed her train of thought. Agnes pressed the back of her hand to the radiator and found it cold and unyielding. She decided to seek comfort in layers, and so rose laboriously from the armchair and headed into her bedroom. Opening up her wardrobe she selected a nice red woollen cardigan, but when she put it on she noticed a budding hole in its left flank. Most of her woollens were in a state of varying disrepair and so this discovery was received as a solemn inevitability rather than an unpleasant surprise. Agnes had been a voracious and skilled knitter but she hadn’t taken up her needles in a while, mainly due to the vertiginous heights to which wool prices had ascended. She was far too proud to resort to acrylics.

As she was fingering the hole in her cardigan she felt nature calling in her lower abdomen, and so repaired to the bathroom for her daily evacuation. Her gastro-intestinal system still ran like clockwork, thanks to a lifetime fondness for prunes that continued to grease the wheels of her digestive tract.

After she had finished depositing Agnes rose from the seat of the throne, however, this manoeuvre didn’t quite go to plan. Although standing, something still seemed to anchor her to the bowl of the toilet. Agnes arched her back and craned her neck and with some difficulty was able to spy the culprit - a sort of sinewy silver cord. She took an experimental step away from the toilet and, to her horror and embarrassment, felt it secrete further from her person. In a fit of panicked desperation she took hold of it with both hands and gave a violent wrench, but it stood fast. Yet, as she stood there holding it in her hands, she began to register the remarkable softness of the abominable tether. It was almost silky, as well as being immensely strong; durable, but light, and probably warm too. But no, she couldn’t possibly use it like that; it would be best to go straight to the doctor’s. On the other hand, beggars can’t be choosers, and needs must when the devil drives.

As her mind worked through an array of axioms and aphorisms, Agnes’ left index finger began once more to peruse the hole in her cardigan until, after several long and pensive minutes, it stopped. With sober-faced resolve, Agnes stepped from her skirt, which lay around her ankles, and made her way to her bedroom, trailing the fibrous secretion behind her like a modern-day Theseus. She returned to the bathroom with her sewing kit and severed the thread with a small pair of steel scissors. Having done that, she took up a squatting position, leaning slightly against the bathroom wall for support, her knitting needles poised below her ready to begin work.

She toiled all through the night and, by the time the first rays of dawn shone through her bathroom window, the entire landscape of the house was transformed. The walls were adorned with enormous knitted hangings; the floors covered by an intricate webbing of thick woven rugs; the furniture buried beneath avalanches of throws; the whole place festooned with a matrix of silken threads running hither and thither. Agnes sat in the middle of it all, snoozing in Fred’s chair underneath the heavy blanket that she had finished only half an hour earlier, a cold cup of tea perched perilously on her lap. This is how she remained until half ten in the morning, when a sharp rap at the front door jerked her into consciousness and sent the tea tumbling to the floor. It bounced once before nestling into the warm, and extremely absorbent, network of rugs. Agnes slid her feet into her slippers and , with considerable effort and enormous force of will, got to her feet and shuffled to the front door. Blinking groggily, she opened it to find a large, red-faced man with a thick moustache and a cheap suit.

‘Good morning, madam. Have you ever considered changing energy suppliers?’ said the man looming in the doorway.

‘No, I haven’t’, replied Agnes, still feeling the pull of the armchair.

‘Well, I think it’s time you did. You could be saving up to 30% on your heating bills, you know.’

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t had much sleep. Could you come back another time?’ said Agnes, yawning for effect.

‘It won’t take a minute, madam. Now, if you’ll just sit down and take a look at the figures I’m sure you’ll be ready to sign immediately.’

‘No, really, I don’t think I’ll be making any sort of decision today.’

‘Nonsense’, said the gas man, as he stepped into the house.

‘Excuse me, but I didn’t invite you in’, protested Agnes.

‘Wow,’ said the gas man, ignoring her plaintive objection. ‘Someone’s got a lot time on their hands. Which way is the boiler? I can’t see anything with all this bloody string everywhere.’

‘I want you to leave now’, said Agnes, with every ounce of authority she could muster.

‘I’ll leave after we’ve had a sit down and a chat, once I’ve said my piece.’ The gas man turned and headed towards the kitchen. His foot caught on a stray piece of thread and he fell, slowly and without resistance, like a chain-sawed redwood. There was a dull thud as his head bounced off the coffee table, and a barely audible groan as the man sank first into the carpet, and then into unconsciousness.

The gas man opened his eyes – at least, he thought he did – but all that greeted him was a new layer of opaque darkness. His head was throbbing and waves of nausea were swilling about his stomach. He tried to move but found that his arms were bound somehow. As his addled mind considered these altogether sinister developments his breath quickened and he began to thrash about wildly, causing a great clattering and a light pummelling, as if by a cascade of sticks. The light came on. He winced and squinted up into the wrinkled and rather disgruntled face of Agnes Sykes as it looked down on him from the doorway. ‘Will you be quiet, please. My son Gerald is coming round in a few minutes and I don’t want us disturbed by all this racket from the broom cupboard.’ The man looked around and saw an assortment of ancient cleaning utensils in a state of disarray. He looked down and saw that he was wearing a very cosy, obviously handmade, jumper. It was several sizes too small for him and whoever had knitted it had neglected to give it any armholes.

‘What time is it? Look, I’m sorry Mrs.... but I really have to be going. We can sort out your energy troubles another time.’

‘No, no, as you said, you’ll leave after we’ve sat down and had a chat.’

‘Let me go or I’ll scream. I’ll scream the bloody house down!’

‘Well, if you can’t be trusted to behave, you had better wear this until you can.’ Agnes took a thick, knitted gag from behind her back and forced it into the gas man’s mouth. He issued a stream of frantic, muffled noises as she placed her hand on his damp forehead and pushed it firmly into the dark recesses of the cupboard.

Gerald Sykes arrived at his mother’s at 3:30 in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. He registered the time as he checked his watch on her front doorstep. He calculated that he could afford to spend up to twenty minutes here before leaving for the airport to catch his six o’ clock flight. With any luck he would be out of the door in ten. He rang the bell and stood tapping his foot, watching his mother’s hazy outline through the frosted glass as it slowly grew larger. Agnes opened the door and said, ‘Hello, Gerald, let me take your coat’. She smiled as he leant in and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Hi, mum’, said Gerald. ‘Don’t mind about my coat. I’ve got a six o’clock flight, so I can’t stay long. I just wanted pop in quick before I left and say Merry Christmas, you know, for tomorrow’. Agnes’ smile wavered for a moment, but soon rallied.

‘That’s alright. It’s good to see you’, she said, ironing out the quavering timbre of her voice. ‘Do you have time for a cup of tea, at least?’

‘I do, but just the one. I don’t want to cut things too fine’, said Gerald, rubbing the back of his head.

‘You just make yourself comfortable in here, and I’ll bring the tea through in a minute.’

Agnes went in to the kitchen while Gerald, whose preoccupation with making his excuses and plotting his escape had hitherto blunted his sensory apparatus, sat down on the sofa and stared in astonishment at the bizarre woollen decor of the house. Meanwhile, Agnes was making the tea: two sugars and a dollop of goat’s milk for herself, one sugar and four crushed sleeping tablets for the inconsiderate whelp in the next room. She brought the two mugs and a plate of biscuits into the living room on a small tin tray, setting it down on the coffee table in front of Gerald.

‘One sugar, no milk. Is that still how you take it?’ asked Agnes.

‘Yes, thanks’, said Gerald, taking a large swig. ‘Everyone’s allowed one little vice, aren’t they? I see you’ve started knitting again. I thought you’d stopped. Too expensive, you said.’

‘I found a source, a cheap source.’

‘You must have. It’s like the inside of a tea cosy in here.’

‘Cosy is what I was going for.’

‘Well, you’ve succeeded with flying colours’, said Gerald, emitting a cavernous yawn, ‘but it’s making me sleepy.’

‘Why don’t you have a quick lie down, dear’, said Agnes, rubbing Gerald’s shoulder and forcing it gently down onto the sofa in the process.

After a few initial protestations Gerald acceded, mumbling softly about ‘just five minutes’ and ‘beating the traffic’ while closing his eyes and sliding down into the warm folds of the couch. Agnes slipped his shoes off, covered him with a knitted throw, and kissed him on the forehead.

Gerald awoke to the familiar aroma of his mother’s Christmas dinner. It brought back a torrent of childhood memories that dissipated as soon as he opened his eyes and saw, sitting across from him, a surly moustachioed man and a small, very frightened little boy that he recognised from next-door. Both of them were wearing flimsy paper crowns and red woollen jumpers that didn’t seem to have any armholes. He looked down at himself and found that he was sporting a similar garment, though his had a large green G on its front. Agnes bustled into his eye line and began stirring a large saucepan that was simmering on the stove.

‘Mother?’ said Gerald, struggling to make sense of the situation.

‘Merry Christmas, Gerald! You’re finally awake’, said Agnes jovially, without turning around.

‘Mother, what’s going on? I’m supposed to be at the airport. What time is it?’ said Gerald, fearing the worst.

‘It is just coming up to 2 o’ clock, and Christmas lunch is just about ready’, said Agnes as she checked the roast potatoes.

‘Christmas lunch? You mean it’s the 25th! What happened? I’m supposed to be in the Bahamas.’

Agnes turned and stared at her son. ‘You fell asleep, dear. It couldn’t be helped.’

‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’

‘You were dead to the world, dear.’

‘You were locked in the cupboard with me’, said the gas man, turning his head and narrowing his eyes at Agnes. ‘Your mum’s gone round the bend.’

‘Can we keep things civil, please’, said Agnes. ‘It is Christmas, after all.’

‘Can you tell me why we’re all wearing these ridiculous jumpers?’ Gerald asked.

‘Christmas presents’, said Agnes, a touch sheepishly.

‘They’re bloody straight jackets’, said the gas man. ‘All I wanted was to give her a better deal on her utilities - that’s all I’ve ever wanted - but when I came inside she knocked me out and I woke up wearing this bloody thing in the bloody broom cupboard. She’s kidnapped us, all of us. She’s mad.’

‘She’s not mad; she’s my mother’, said Gerald, swept along by a wave of filial duty.

‘Thank you, son’, said Agnes.

‘Shut up’, said Gerald, as the wave broke. ‘Of course you’re mad. And what’s the boy from next door doing here?’

‘Can I go home now, please?’ said the boy.

‘You can go home when you clean your plate’, replied Agnes, without looking over. ‘He’s always kicking his ball into the garden and climbing over the fence to get it, trampling my flowers in the process.’

‘So you did what?’ demanded Gerald, dreading the answer even as he asked the question.

‘I set a trap for him.’

‘A trap?’

‘Yes, a sort of noose-like contraption that constricts around the ankles. I saw Ray Mears do it on the television. It was easy enough - just like following a recipe.’

‘It made me go upside down’, said the little boy excitedly.

Gerald hung his head. ‘I’m so sorry, all of you. I don’t know what’s come over her. I suppose when you get to a certain age, and maybe living on her own doesn’t help, your faculties start to diminish and you-‘

‘I am not going senile!’ shrieked Agnes. ‘All I wanted was to have a proper Christmas dinner with another human being.’ She jabbed her finger into Gerald’s nose. ‘This is your fault for going off on holiday and leaving me here alone’. She turned and pushed her wizened little face into the gas man’s large flabby one. ‘And it’s your fault for bursting your way into old ladies’ houses and trying to take advantage. And I didn’t attack you; you tripped, you great oaf. And you-‘ she said, turning to the small boy from next door, her fearsome aspect faltering somewhat. ‘You...I’m sorry Timothy. I think I got a bit carried away. I’ll give you your ball back now and you can run along home.’

‘Ok’, said Timothy.

Agnes went to the broom cupboard and returned with Timothy’s football. She cut him out of his jumper with a bread knife and shepherded him out of the backdoor with a mince pie in his pocket, the ball in his hands, and a merry Christmas ringing in his ears.

After seeing Timothy off, Agnes was finally prepared to serve lunch. But, just as she took up the carving knife, an excited banging erupted from the front door, to her extreme consternation. ‘Stay quiet, all of you, until I sort this out.’ She marched from the kitchen, shutting the door firmly behind her, and strode over to the front door. She opened it a crack and peered out. There, to her surprise, was Mr Oakleigh from the farm on the hill, looking decidedly paler and sweatier than usual.

‘Good Afternoon, Mrs Sykes’, he said.

‘Merry Christmas’, Agnes replied, opening the door a little wider.

‘Yes, of course. Merry Christmas.’ Mr Oakleigh flashed a nervous smile. ‘I was just calling by to see if you had experienced any problems recently.’

‘What do you mean by problems?’ said Agnes, with an air of concern.

‘Well, a few complaints have been registered with regard to the most recent batch of milk that we’ve delivered.’

Agnes shook her head. ‘I don’t understand. What sort of complaints?’

‘Well, a few of our customers have mentioned some, um, adverse reactions. Nothing too serious; some psychological, erm, episodes; problems with digestion – a lot of people have reported producing unusually starchy, er, stools. Your toilet hasn’t been blocked recently has it?’

‘Of course not’, she lied, hoping he wouldn’t notice the unpleasant aroma wafting from the bathroom or the increasingly red tinge to her cheeks.

‘Yes, well, I think it’s a bit of a storm in a teacup myself. I mean, a few goats from the research centre might have got mixed up with our lot. There’s nothing really wrong with them of course, only a bit of arachnid genetic material floating around, but at the end of the day a goat’s a goat, even when it’s a spider - you see what I’m saying. Nevertheless, as a gesture of good faith, Orley farm is bestowing a sort of Christmas bonus/settlement, call it what you want, on all of our loyal local customers, to show how much we care. So, erm, here it is’. Mr. Oakleigh thrust a cheque into Agnes’ hands and immediately turned and hurried up the garden path. He thought that he had succeeded in slipping the noose when he got to the front gate, only to feel it tighten once more around his neck.

‘Mr Oakleigh!’

The man’s shoulders drooped as he suspended his escape and responded, ‘Yes?’

‘Whom should I contact if do start developing a reaction?’

‘If I were you, Mrs Sykes, I’d just keep it under my hat. I’m sure it’ll go away in no time at all.’

‘Really?’

‘I’m counting on it’.

By the time Agnes had returned the gas man had upended his chair, toppled on to the floor, and was inching his way towards the back door in the manner of a very large and foul-mouthed caterpillar. ‘I’m about to serve up and I find you rolling about on the floor like an animal’, said Agnes.

‘I don’t want any of that tripe. The bird looks dry and the potatoes look soggy’, he replied, his words dripping with venom.

‘I was going to give you some in a little bowl, like a doggy, but I don’t think I’ll bother now’, said Agnes, with a caustic smirk.

‘That’s alright. I’m sure my wife’s got a fine Christmas dinner on the table for me back home. Either that or she’s still out looking for me. Probably both, if I know her.’

This last comment of the gas man’s seemed to rupture Agnes’ air of defiance and the cruel grin slipped from her face. She quickly set about carving the turkey with a look of intense concentration, but it was too late. Gerald had seen his opportunity to appeal to her better nature.

‘Mum, you can’t keep him tied up here on Christmas. Think how his family must be feeling. Imagine if Dad hadn’t come home one Christmas Eve’, said Gerald, plucking desperately at his mother’s heart-strings. ‘How would you feel then?’

‘I was only trying to teach him a lesson’, said Agnes. A note of uncertainty had crept into her voice, spurring Gerald on.

‘I know, but don’t you think you’ve done that already? I think it’s probably time to let him go. And me.’

‘I can’t. What if he goes to the police?’

‘He won’t go to the police’, said Gerald. He glanced across at the gas man. ‘Will you?’

‘No’ said the gas man, after thinking for a moment. ‘Not if you let me go right this second’. Agnes started towards the gas man with the carving knife - still dripping with turkey fat and trembling in her hands. ‘Maybe you should cut your son out first’, said the gas man, staring wide-eyed at the advancing blade. ‘Just in case anyone tries any funny stuff.’

‘He’s right, mum’, said Gerald. ‘He might go for you as soon as you let him free.’

‘All right, then’, sighed Agnes. She turned and freed Gerald with a ragged swipe. He stood up, snatched the knife off his mother, and released the gas man. Gerald helped the man to his feet issuing, first a fervent apology, then a veiled threat that, if he were to report this little misdemeanour, they might have to make an issue of his questionable sales practices. They sealed this agreement with a curt and ill-tempered shake of the hand. The gas man glared at Agnes and knocked a jug of gravy off the table with his elbow on his way out of the kitchen. It smashed and splattered all over the floor. She went to the broom cupboard for a dustpan and brush, but when she returned there was no sign of her son.

After cleaning the kitchen floor thoroughly, she sat down at the table with a stack of mince pies and tried to isolate exactly when things had started to go wrong. On her third pie she settled on the moment that the gas man had tripped, or rather, the moment his head had hit the table. When that loud crack resounded, that was when things could have gone either way, when a definite fork had appeared in the road: phone an ambulance or lock him in the cupboard. It had seemed so obvious to her at the time, but looking back on it now she could see that each had its pros and cons.

Agnes was still wrestling with this dilemma when Gerald walked back into the room, having finishing the phone-call to his wife in the back-garden. He sat down at the table opposite his mother, picked up his knife and fork and said, ‘Well, are we going to eat, or what?’


About the author: Charlie Galbraith recently graduated from Glasgow University. Since then he has moved back in with his parents and now divides his time between writing fiction, waiting in line at the job centre, and scratching himself. He is currently feeling disillusioned and rudderless, which seems like an appropriate response to the circumstances.

Photo: Chris Forman at Cambridge University Engineering