The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: Mnemonic by James Scudamore

Mnemonic

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He is not the sort of person to break his journey to take in a view, not least because his employer, Jerome, has strict rules on the importance of staying focused during research trips. But this morning, on his way to the target’s address, Dan pulls the car over on a high country road and gets out to admire the wooded valley beneath – a cauldron of reds and oranges, with a cloud of mist suspended in its base. Witchy. She’s down there somewhere.

He descends into the valley and drives up and down the same lane for twenty minutes, his baffled sat-nav making increasingly contradictory suggestions. Finally on a hunch he turns down an unmarked dirt track, at the end of which he finds the smallholding, spread out over its modest triangle of land behind a contorted barbed-wire fence. The paddock contains animals of varying sizes: two big cobs, a couple of miniature Shetlands, a thwarted old donkey scratching its flank on a gatepost. It is deep autumn. Leaf-rot exhales from the ground. The beechwoods vault up around him in blazing cathedrals.

The dwelling looks so shabby it could be abandoned. Its porch is hung with dreamcatchers and wind chimes. He knocks on the door, avoiding the fractured panes of its windows. He stares at a rusting wheelbarrow full of pumpkins, marvelling at their size.

‘Horse-shit,’ says the woman at his back. ‘Incredible stuff. The plants just leap out of it.’ She wipes her hands on her jeans in anticipation of their interaction, but more recent habits trump the old and they do not shake hands.

Horse-shit. H.

‘I’m Dan,’ he says. ‘I rang about the tools.’

‘Course you did. I’d forgotten what day we said. Come to the workshop and have a look.’

She is slight and small, with fierce energy. He likes her immediately.

‘What’s your name?’ he says, though he knows it already.

‘Oh. Sorry. Yvonne. Hadley.’

‘Hello, Yvonne Hadley.’

H is for Hadley. Good.Why is he snagging on that name? Something from the past. Some tug.

He follows her on a muddy path round the side of the cottage to a crippled outbuilding with a corrugated iron roof.

‘I don’t really want to part with them,’ she says, opening the door and giving its base a practised tap with her toe. ‘But my husband wasn’t able to use them for years, and he’s gone now.’

The pumpkins are good, but they’re obvious. They’ve taken too prominent a position in the day. She’ll remember the pumpkins. He isn’t worried. He can already see that the place is so densely textured that it’s just going to be a question of selecting a few key details.

H is for horse-shit.

‘I’m sorry about your husband,’ says Dan.

She snaps a rusty switch and striplights stutter into life. ‘It was a blessing, in a way. He’d wanted to go for some time. Motor neurone is a horrible decline. It’s just a shame it was the bug that got him in the end. We’d spent so long preparing for it but we never said goodbye. I seeded all this lovely asparagus because he was so fond of it and he never even got to taste it.’

A is for asparagus.

Horse-shit. Asparagus.

In the early days of the show they used to gain access by pretending to need help. A flat tyre, a lost phone. Maybe even a light injury. They learned to be less conspicuous. If an incident stuck in the memory too clearly then suspicions might be aroused at the performance, however much time had passed. Now it’s understood that the key skill is to pass through the target’s life without leaving a mark. To find some frictionless way in, leaving no sense of forced entry. Like responding to a small ad in a local newspaper.

The workshop has an air of disuse but its neatness and order are striking. The dead man’s tools beautifully arranged. Evidence everywhere of a powerful, pragmatic intelligence. Carefully labelled tins of screws. Saws and hammers cleaned and oiled and tidily stowed.

‘Do you know what you’re looking for?’ says Yvonne.

‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I just saw the ad and I’ve been thinking of getting into carving.’

‘You’ll be wanting chisels.’

‘I guess so.’

‘Maybe a plane, or a jigsaw?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You don’t know what I mean by a jigsaw, do you?’

‘I don’t,’ he admits, and smiles.

Abruptly she loses patience with his cluelessness. ‘Well, have a look. Take as long as you want. I’ll be in the house when you’re ready.’

She leaves the workshop with something like relief and he hears her walking back to the house. Alone in the resettling dust he runs a hand along the worn wood handles of the chisels hanging on the wall.

His attention alights on a high shelf above the tools where there’s a small collection of meticulously carved wooden animals. He reaches and brings down a donkey that is so clearly modelled on the ancient creature in the paddock outside that it makes him beam with recognition.

D is for donkey. 

Horse-shit. Asparagus. Donkey (wooden).

He turns the donkey in the light and puts it back. When enough time has passed, he leaves. He decides that he will ask to buy the chisels but thinks it would be an imposition to take them off the wall himself.

The front door of the cottage has been left open. He calls to announce himself and enters. From within a small room to his left boom the sounds of synthetic combat: batteries of gunfire, the deep clunk of reloaded weapons, the power-grunts of digital combatants. This will be the son. Sixteen, if Dan remembers rightly. He looks into the room at the back of the young man’s head.

‘Hello,’ says Dan. There is no reaction. The soldier on the screen machine-guns his way through a sequence of bombed-out desert bunkers.

Hearing noise from another room he withdraws and makes for what must be the kitchen. On a cluttered hall table he spots a generic undertaker’s leaflet, the front cover of which reads At This Time… in a flowery, cursive script.

On the wall above it are two family photos. One shows the three of them somewhere wild and beautiful, the man holding up his infant son in his strong arms, Yvonne’s big hair waving in the wind. The second shows him at what must have been the later stages of his illness, Yvonne and the boy assembled in the yard outside behind the man in the chair. The father looks like he has been run over, then scooped up and somehow reanimated. The boy looks desperately sad.

Dan finds Yvonne at the kitchen counter cutting up a monstrous, freshly harvested cauliflower and salting the pieces in a bowl.

‘The older I get, the more I take refuge in rituals,’ she says. ‘I have to make piccalilli every year before the clocks go back. It’s a sort of “fuck you” to the darkness I suppose.’

Way too specific. Dan’s presence is linked to the piccalilli completely. Piccalilli’s out.

‘This is my son,’ she says, gesturing with the point of her blade at the figure looming behind Dan, who has paused his game and come to see what’s up. ‘This is Dan. He’s here about your father’s tools.’

Somewhere in the woods a dog barks and Yvonne smiles to herself and looks over Dan’s shoulder at the boy.

‘Can you just stop?’ he says.

‘You don’t know, do you?’ says his mother. ‘Nobody knows for sure.’

The son shoots a look at Dan. ‘So far since he died he’s been a beam of light shining through a tree, an owl she heard hooting in the night, a daddy-long-legs that got stuck in the soap when she was washing her face, a slug she trod on, and a fly that ended up in her mouth yesterday morning. How much longer can he stand to keep coming back?’

‘He’s as upset as I am,’ says Yvonne. ‘He just doesn’t know how to express it.’

‘Dad couldn’t speak for the last six months,’ the boy goes on. ‘But now he’s dead he can’t shut up, apparently.’

He passes Dan, snatches the kettle off the side and fills it up.

‘Tea?’ says Yvonne, brightly fighting the mood.

With Jerome’s popularity soaring the way it is now, researchers rarely get to meet him personally. A lot of his employees don’t even know who they work for. But Dan was with him long before the boom. He’s one of Jerome’s longest-serving associates.

Jerome. Who knows if it’s even his real name? What does a Jerome look like? This one favours pastel shirts and fixes your gaze with his unnervingly pale blue eyes. Soft hands. Citrus cologne. An uncanny ability to read rooms and raise temperatures and take you where he wants you to go. He’s been called ‘one the most remarkable practitioners of this, or any generation’ by a lot of people who should know better, none of whom seem ready to acknowledge the fact that throughout history the ones people most want to believe in all seem to pop up when a lot of people have died.

But even before the bug he was turning the industry upside down thanks to the freakish precision of his insights. Not for him the barrage balloons of speculation trawling for a bite. Brown hair no blonde hair. I’m getting an animal, a pet of some kind. Have you done something to the kitchen? No. Jerome goes in with all the precision weaponry you’d expect from someone who employs a battalion of spies, all of whom have signed cast-iron NDAs.

The boy has taken his mug of tea, returned to the front room and unpaused his murderous game. The sound effects seem louder than ever.

Yvonne hands Dan a mug of tea. ‘I keep telling myself it’s still early days,’ says Yvonne. ‘He and I will get along better soon. And if I’m honest, I don’t mind having a bit of noise around the house. It was that quiet, before.’

‘Why?’ says Dan.

‘His father couldn’t stand it. Any noise and he’d go berserk.’

‘Was he ill for a long time?’

‘Yes. But it started long before that. Still, it helped my son to read well long before anyone in his class.’

‘No TV allowed?’

‘He was allowed TV. He just had to watch it with the sound down and the subtitles on. So if he wanted to understand what was going on, reading was the only way. The problem was, he got so used to it that he ended up not really trusting his ears. When we watch something now he has to ask me what they’ve said sometimes because he isn’t sure. Just one of many ways we’ve messed him up, I suppose.’

L is for loud.

Horse-shit. Asparagus. Donkey. Loud. Hadley.

That name again.

‘You probably think I’m silly, listening out for him in birds and trees and so on,’ says Yvonne. ‘Only I did make my husband a promise, years ago, after the diagnosis first came. I said that when he went, I’d keep my ears out just in case. And he said that if he could reach me at all, then he would. Sorry. I’m talking too much.’

Dan sees this a lot. People still so unused to regular social contact that they imagine they’re the only ones inclined to overshare. In some ways it makes his job incredibly easy — but on the other hand he must work doubly hard to ensure that the encounter is not so memorable that it sticks out. Details like the donkey are what you want. Nobody even knows he’s seen it.

‘I don’t think you’re silly at all,’ he says. ‘Though if he hated noise as much as you say he did then perhaps listening for him might not be the right approach.’

Yvonne stares at him for just long enough that he fears he’s offended her, then she puts down her mug of tea and laughs. ‘So what have you decided?’

‘About what?’

‘About the tools.’

‘Yes. Sorry. I’ll take the chisels if I may. I feel guilty, though.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s such a complete picture, over there. I feel bad breaking it up. It feels… contented.’

Businesslike now. Fronting up once more. ‘Well, I want to clear that shed and put chickens in it. That’s what will make it a contented place as far as I’m concerned. Very often he went over there because something in here had made him grumpy. Fetch what you want.’

This time on his way out to the workshop he spots a lean-to shelter where all the equipment of chronic illness has been neatly stowed: wheelchair, handrails and harnesses, a bedpan. He realises now that the whole place is quietly unclenching with relief. They’re getting over it but they don’t know it yet. He knows the look people have when they’re still in the shock of bereavement, a blankness that makes him think of a dead branch or a doll’s eye, and these two don’t have it. They just need permission to get on.

He re-enters the workshop filled with unsentimental purpose, strips the chisels off the wall and rolls them into an old apron he finds hanging on the back of the door. When he returns to the kitchen, Yvonne spots what he has chosen to wrap his purchases in and is momentarily stilled.

‘Wrong thing?’ he asks.

‘Take it,’ she says.

Obviously, some losses do throw people for life. Give them a sense of being in the wrong room that never goes away. But his sense is that this one doesn’t have to be like that. And there’s always the possibility that you were always going to feel like you were in the wrong room, and were just looking for an excuse to feel that way.

Yvonne enters a small pantry off the kitchen and opens the door of a beaten-up old fridge. Inside he sees a row of clear bottles filled with pale yellow liquid.

‘I think that if you’re going to take them, we should have a drink to him. We’ve been rationing these because it’s the last batch he made but I don’t think I can let the old apron go just like that. Do you like cider? It’s the good flat stuff, not the fizzy pop you get down the pub.’

C is for cider. Doesn’t fit. Hadley. Horse-shit. Asparagus. Donkey (wooden). Loud (noises). E is for effervescent (not; cider). Hadley.

‘Don’t waste it on me,’ says Dan.

‘It won’t be a waste if you like it.’ She has unscrewed the cap and is setting out two Pyrex tumblers. Drinking on the job is totally forbidden, but think of the material. ‘Anyway, I’m worried that I’ve given you the wrong impression of my husband. He was a wonderful father. And so capable, before he got ill. I think now that the anger was the first sign of it. I think he subconsciously knew something was wrong with him long before any of us knew for sure.’

The cider smells like a rotting orchard, but tastes good. It warms his belly and rockets to his head. Dan tells himself that he’s now got so much information that he can mentally clock off – which means he should be getting out of here, right now. But Yvonne is in a confessional mood.

She gestures sadly in the direction of the thundering war-game. ‘My son has it too, sometimes. The temper. I just wish he wasn’t so angry with me.’

‘Grief is hard on everybody,’ says Dan. ‘I’m sure it’s not really you he’s angry with.’

‘Oh, I think it is,’ says Yvonne, wiping her mouth and smiling.

‘Why?’ says Dan. Careful. Too much insight, too much care, and you quickly stop being anonymous. Already he is far more than the random bloke who answered the ad in the paper. But his guard is lowered. Normal protocols have been suspended. All the stops put in place by Jerome are failing.

‘He’s angry with me,’ says Yvonne, ‘because of something that happened a few weeks after the funeral. It confused me at the time, but I’ve forgiven myself.’

He knows better than to ask her to continue, but continue she does.

‘There was a man,’ she says. ‘An old friend. He came over to see how we were coping. And he was just so caring. And having someone in the house who was free of it all, and kind, was such a nice surprise. We ended up having a bit of a romance. I know my son was horrified by it. And you can see how small this place is. There was no way of keeping it from him, if you know what I mean.’

This is murky territory. Dan has an urge to liberate himself as quickly as possible. But Yvonne is still talking.

‘The trouble is, people are awful, aren’t they? Most of them. And this guy who started out being so gentle — he just wouldn’t leave me alone. Made me feel terrible about it. We ended on very bad terms. So I messed things up with my son for nothing.’

The front room has gone silent again. Now, as if he summoned by some instinct that he’s under discussion, the boy returns.

‘Okay to get a Coke?’ he says at the door, gaze fixing on Dan and Yvonne and the open bottle between them.

‘Anything for you, light of my life,’ says his mother, perked by the alcohol. She gestures at the bottle. ‘Or you can have a taste of the old elixir if you like.’

‘I thought you came to buy tools,’ the boy says to Dan, looking at him with entirely warranted suspicion.

‘He did,’ says Yvonne. ‘He’s taking your Dad’s chisels and it’s made me sentimental, so I thought that deserved a drop. Do you think he’d mind?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ says the boy, going to the fridge and fetching his drink. ‘I guess you can always ask him yourself when you see Jerome.’

Adrenaline spike. Ride it out. Neutral expression.

‘He’s teasing me,’ says Yvonne. ‘You probably haven’t heard of this guy, Jerome Godfrey?’

‘I haven’t,’ says Dan, focusing on his own breathing, keeping it as even as possible.

‘He’s a medium. A psychic. I know, I know. But I’ve found his videos very soothing. He knows things he just can’t know. This one thinks I’m nuts for wanting to go on his show. But I applied, just to see. They may not even invite me on. I know tons of people don’t get asked.’

Oh, you’ll get asked, he thinks. You’ll be hearing in a week or two. They wait until well after someone like me has been to call before they make contact. So there’s less chance of suspicion flaring when he gets to the good stuff. No diminishment in the rapture when the clouds part and Jerome passes on how much your dearly departed wishes he’d stuck around long enough to taste your asparagus, or his desire that you take down the carved donkey from the shelf and think of him.

‘You’re sceptical?’ Dan says to the boy.

The boy cracks his Coke and takes a big swig. ‘What’s your name again?’

‘Dan.’

‘Well, Dan. It’s bullshit, isn’t it? It’s taking advantage. By the way, you should take it easy on that cider. Any more and you’ll have trouble driving out of here.’

If he was prepared to blow his cover, Dan might at this point mention that Jerome believes absolutely in his gifts — he just has a different idea of what his gifts are to the one he projects to the public. He believes his talent is consolation. But Dan knows that a conversation like that would never end well.

‘Whoever thought I’d raise such a sensible kid?’ says Yvonne, as the boy retreats again, openly hostile. She drains her cider and refills both of their glasses. ‘Not what the Hadley family is known for, I can tell you.’

It is upon him all at once — Hadley. It was the name of Miss Kendrick’s boyfriend. The one who died. His memories of it all are so fixated on her that he’d forgotten the poor man’s name.

Miss Kendrick had come to Dan’s school straight out of university to teach French. Everybody liked her. Many boys fancied her. Many girls saw her as a friend. She had trouble controlling the class at times.

She’d taken up with Mr Hadley not long after his arrival. He taught Drama. They were shy about it but it had come out, and rather than teasing them the pupils had become fond of the idea, and proprietorial about it. The couple had charmed them.

During the summer of Dan’s fifteenth year Miss Kendrick and Mr Hadley had led a once-in-a-lifetime school trip that took a travelling production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream around Malawi, a country that Mr Hadley had worked in before. Dan hadn’t qualified because he was too young, but he had been desperate to go because at that time all he wanted to be was an actor.

Miss Kendrick had returned at the start of that September term looking like a different person. Tanned and relaxed and sexily more at ease with herself. They’d all noticed.

Two weeks later Mr Hadley had been found dead on his bathroom floor one morning of toxic shock, having picked up an undiagnosed parasite on the trip which had reacted badly with his malaria medication.

It had captured everybody’s imagination. The time had been right for it somehow. Dan’s own mother had sent flowers. When Miss Kendrick returned to work after the funeral, her pupils had watched her closely, alive to any hint of her pain, aware that as that year ended and a new one began, the knife in her would be twisted. New life would begin all around, great fists of blossom in the trees, while Mr Hadley sank into the ground. Dan and his friends had feasted on it.

Miss Kendrick left the school the following year, and they had grieved intensely for her loss. They never heard what happened to her afterwards, and for all he knows she is fine, but Dan remembers imagining in a melodramatic and vaguely salacious way that her life was somehow disfigured forever.

Looking back at it now, mindful of all the other things that started to go wrong at that point or shortly after, Dan is abruptly convinced that Mr Hadley’s death marks the beginning of his own descent, a descent so long and determined that it took something as eccentric as working for Jerome to arrest it, though he knows it is all far more complicated than that. He also realises that Miss Kendrick, with all the various shortcuts she’d taught them to help them with their irregular verbs, is probably the reason why he uses his mnemonics.

It is at this moment, cider-certain of the validation of Jerome’s entire philosophy, that Dan sees the man walk past the window outside, sloping off from house to workshop, hair unkempt, pulling on his woodworking apron over a quilted green jacket. Shavings still clinging to him, striding confidently past the wreckage of his own mobility equipment, off to his refuge to grumble and gripe and carve his charming animals. Dan know that his vision is an impossibility, not only because the same apron is right here in front of him but also because even if the man were alive, he would still be in the chair. Yet there he is, raised like a genie from his own fermented bottles.

‘It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never known it,’ Yvonne is saying. ‘But in the pit of it like that, you’d do anything to feel alive again. And you’re not just doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for the dead person too. You’re living for the two of you.’

‘He forgives you,’ says Dan.

‘Come again?’

‘Your husband. I can see him, and he forgives you.’

He waits to see if her expression will soften or harden, acutely conscious that at this point things could go either way.

James Scudamore’s latest novel, English Monsters, is published by Jonathan Cape.

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