One memory makes me.
He was under the bed. We got down on hands and knees to look.
One bleached and furious eye stared back from a filling of pale, wrinkled flesh, something almost crustaceal, peering from a half-closed shell. We looked at folded motionless meat in the squeeze of wood, and laughed.
Nathan had a half-bar of fruit and nut and he waved it under the bed, cooing: “Chocolate, Granddad. Chocolate!” and Frank and Joseph were faces placed to leer on shoulders, chiming in: “Choc-a-late! Choc-a-late!” and Nathan waved the bar, glittering sparkle of golden foil.
“Get away!”— Granddad’s hoarse expulsion from under the bed, “Get away!” A desiccated claw swiped a futile arc and slithered back.
Triplets toppled in tangled giggles, identical faces hidden with hands. Granddad growled glottal again and the triplets laughed, using each other to drag up and stand. They dashed off to find our mammy.
Left with the old man, I stood with my back against the wall, hands pressed between the two. I couldn’t see him but could hear him wheeze, the slow crack of a limb straightened, the gasp as it was folded again.
My shifting weight made a floorboard sigh and he shot a sentence into the room. “Someone there?”
Frozen, I said nothing.
“Is someone there?”
I kept myself silent— I could hear, coming closer, the harried waddle of my mother, the triplets scampering about her like dogs, yapping for scraps.
She took up the doorway with the curve of her belly, blowing a breath out the side of her mouth. Her blonde hair was scraped back in veins of grey, only a twist at the forehead free. “Ah Dad,” she said, “You’re not at this again?” Tiredness weighted her words to drone. “We talked about this.”
An absolute nothing from under the bed.
The triplets pushed their way back into the room, scattering down again on knees. “Come out! Granddad, come out!”
“Kids,” she said, half-hearted, eyes heavy under lids, “Boys…”
Joseph latched onto Granddad’s hand and dragged it from the tight space. The old man fought, cracking his back and skull off wooden slats, grunting a soft “Get off me,” but too much flesh under the bed, limbs could only retreat so far. The triplets took his fingers, each wrapping a pudgy hand around a digit.
The old man roared—flesh between fingers suddenly half-translucent pink and white, words sharp with the sting of tears: “Monsters… you little monsters…”
She clapped her hands sharply— “Come away. You’re not doing any good.” They released the fingers and skipped away, forming a gleeful chorus behind our mother. She took a step into the room. Her voice strived for softness but sounded thin and brittle instead, “We need the space Dad,” and she ran a hand over the lumpen birth of her growing stomach.
The old man roared, each shout a long-gathered thing that emptied utterly: “I built this house!” A long silence then as lungs were filled to launch: “I built it with my two hands!” He struck boards with a fist. “My blood! My sweat, girl!”
I looked at my mother.
“You can’t do this to me!” and granddad’s words broke apart in weep, “You haven’t the right, girl!”
She covered her eyes, brought thumb and finger in to squeeze the bridge of her nose. Taking the doorframe for support she looked at me. Her voice was the calm of giving-up. “Get your father, will you?”
He sat outside on a lawn chair, reading a newspaper and humming a snatch of half-forgotten song. I stood near, expecting him to note my presence. He didn’t. I had to speak. “Granddad is under the bed,” I said. “We’re trying to get him out.”
My father didn’t move, didn’t say anything.
“But he won’t come out,” I finished, gently annoyed at having to voice the obvious. My father folded his paper, pursing lips and staring into the middle distance. “I’ll follow you in a second,”—that familiar flat distracted voice.
He joined us. The sudden grunt of unaccustom and he was on his bended knees beside the bed, one hand gripping the mattress, one hand splayed on the floor. “Mr Mangan,” he called, “Peter… You have to come out. You can’t stay under there.”
But granddad in glowering silence, livid eyes the weak flash of salmonflesh, an unmoving, unmoveable thing, limpet-glued for good.
My father held out his hand and Frank put the yardbrush in it. “I don’t want to do this Peter,” and he swept the handle of the brush beneath the bed— the crack as it hit my granddad on the jaw. He cursed and tried to grab but the brush swiped left to right, withdrawing to jab; dull when hitting flesh, high when hitting bone. My granddad cried out but would not be moved.
“No use.” My father looked at my mother.
An exhalation of blades as she bent as best she could, varicose vein a blue worm between slipper and trouser leg. Her words clipped and flung— “We’ll get the hose. You want that Dad? We’ll wash you out.” She left a little pause. “Or we’ll lock you in. Hmm?” the upward inflection took her eyebrow with it, “Stay if you love it so much, and starve. It’ll be your body we pull out. Your choice, Dad. Make the decision.” Her face was reddening, skin on temples taut and white, drumskins trembling.
Silence from under the bed.
“Fine,” she spat, hauling herself in painful stages, “I’ve had it up to here with you,” and violent the chop of hand against her sternum, spittle hiss in gritted teeth— “Selfish. You’ve always been the most selfish man—” and my father’s hands are around her shoulders, helping her rise the rest of the way.
The triplets a gallery of still and sombre faces.
My grandfather a slice of flesh barely glimpsed, whispering: “Okay…”
My granddad came out sideways, a flattened crab, pyjamas opened and almost pulled away, showing the skinny blue-nakedness of shoulders, polka-dot with developing bruise. The sagging striations of fatless skin, pimpled in gooseflesh, studded with the albino hairs of unshaved bacon. His clenched feet trailing dust, with tears in his eyes, he whispered a last “Okay.”
A wretched, defeated man, he gathered his pyjamas about him. “Let me get dressed,” he mumbled, “I’ll behave. I promise.” Whine of a kicked dog, a grey-brown eye along the row of grinning triplet masks, finally resting on mine.
Resting for an age.
We left him and he dressed himself— a crisp white shirt, a cream jumper and faded brown corduroy trousers. My mother took a hairbrush and dragged it through his disordered hair.
He let her. He was spent.
A brisk knock on the front door.
The old man’s mouth fell open, his hands catching each other in a twisted ball at his throat. She looked at him, then opened the door.
The day came inside—cool air and dead lemon light. I worked myself into the gap between my mother and the frame. On the path stood two men in navy overalls, blunt and impatient— schedules to keep, quotas to fill. One held a clipboard and pen, the other a cigarette half-concealed in clam-closed hands. Their roll-side van, red with spotless windows, angled across the end of our driveway.
They asked if they were at the right address.
My mother said yes.
They asked if he was ready to go.
My mother looked at her father and said yes.
Granddad looked at the men with swift and hunted eyes.
The triplets ran to the van and looked inside then, growing bored almost immediately, chased each other across the lawn.
The man with the clipboard asked questions and she answered before her father could, the point of a pen dragging its way down the list, jinking to the right with each answer. The man brought a fluid breath up through nostrils and swallowed the collectings. “Allergies?”
That question made my granddad explode—red-faced, with fists almost down at his knees he roared “I’m here! I’m standing right in front of you, you can ask me!” One fist extended a pointing finger and quivered “I’m not gone yet!” Words shrivelling in the pale lemon of the lifeless day— An ache of silence, an awkward shame— I became hot with it.
“Dad,” she tutted, “Please.”
The sheet received its last tick. “Yellow,” said the man, “Two stripes red.” In one swift movement the other man clamped shining metal jaws upon the lobe of granddad’s ear. The trigger squeezed— Ka-KLUNK— and the mouth of metal pulled away, leaving its plastic tag behind.
Yellow. Two stripes red.
A thin ribbon of watery blood and Granddad fell to his knees, white and silent with inexpressible pain. Caught and held between the men granddad couldn’t bring himself to step— the toes of his shoes were ruined with scrapes. They opened the van and put him sitting inside.
My mother caught my eye and offered a little smile. “We’ll follow them down in a few hours. Okay?”
Her smile grew as she turned, calling for attention with a clap of her hands. “I think I know a few hungry men who’d like their breakfasts, hmm? Rashers anyone?” Nathan, Frank and Joseph put down their sticks and ran to her, their hands raised eager. Smiling, laughing, my parents shepherded them inside.
I was forgotten.
The van backed out of our drive. Through spotless windows I watched them tighten straps around granddad. He turned and saw me too.
A silent scream.
The van stopped at the turn of the road where an old woman was wheeled from her house. The lift came down for her wheelchair and sedate, enthroned, she went up and in, her head a puff of lighted blue.
I watched the van turn and go for good.
We had breakfast, the usual chaos, and then we were all in the car and making our way into town.
It rose behind houses and shops, gentle slopes in red and dirty white, festooned in slack unmoving flags—the tent. I pressed my face to the glass and stared. It had risen, a gaudy mushroom, in one single night.
We parked the car, one amongst hundreds, in a field scoured with lines of muck and disembarking, made our way towards the tent.
Flags cracked. Cloth softly shifted.
I looked around.
Families were moving through cars, between empty cages and stacks of hay. The triplets ran around my mother and she laughed as they danced. My father held my hand and I asked him “Where do we buy tickets?”
He replied in a gentle voice “There are no tickets. It’s a special performance. A preview. We’re getting to see it for free. Because.”
I waited long for him to finish.
“Because,” I prompted.
But we were passing through the mouth of the tent and into dark. His arm went round me tight. “Oh,” he said, “Keep close.”
The first thing was the smell—dirt and sawdust, the rank of animals, sharp lingering feculence, leaving mouths thick and full— then our feet, loud in the ringing silence of an endless open interior.
My eyes slowly got used to the dark. On rows around were the melted half-shapes of families sitting close together. We climbed up creaking steps and took our place amongst them as far below the circle widened in blazing.
Too much light. No shadows.
Everything we could see in that circle.
The triplets were restless. “Sit down,” my mother snapped as they bounced, “It’s going to begin.”
And it began—the slow drawing back of curtain, the roll of steam or smoke, and a figure moving into light.
“The man,” my father whispered, “The painted man.”
A gaunt face, picked in shades of bone and black, lips redone as belts of teeth, thick black daubed as shadows on cheek and nose and rimming the sockets of rolling eyes. The right side of the head was a mass of knotted, matted hair, alive, it seemed, with the movements of little things. The left half was shaved raw, black and white smearing into vivid pink, like layers had been stripped or burned away. No ear on that side of the head.
He wore a long white coat, triple-tailed in forks and silver buttons, and a pair of tight white trousers, stained on crotch and knee. A pair of black boots, bedded in breaking clots of muck, brought him to the edge of lit space. We could see the patches that made up his suit— white and beige and grey and pallid skin.
His right hand was painted in black and white bones, his left hand plastic red to the elbow. His lips pinched in a bony smile he muttered something into his microphone, but the metal screech and electric whine rasped down the words to nothing— he moved his mouth and I could put any words I wanted there. He broke off and pointed the whining microphone at the audience.
We all looked at the blunt silver end but no-one knew what to do or say.
Striding, the cable of the microphone lazy uncurving in dust, his eyes raked rows, left to right, ringside to gods, finding my family in the dark, finding me amongst them.
His eyes lay on me the longest.
Seemed to scour two holes through me.
I was scared to move or blink.
Opposing rows of broken brown teeth grinding against each other.
Suddenly I understood— we were here for the painted man. All of this was here for him alone.
I knew he would get his way into my dreams.
I would lose months and years of sleep to him.
The painted man whispered something blurred by electric and metal then spinning he gestured with a hand of bones.
The curtain was drawn back, a chill breath of smoke was loosed and through it— Granddad, and after him came another old man, short and broad, with a glossy distended belly. Both were naked, both blinking in the harshness of light. They were led to opposite sides of the circle.
Granddad stared into the darkness, one hand crossed over his stomach, pink knees knocked together, bony ankles like blisters ready to burst, shoulders sharpened, wracked with shivers. His nose ran bright down mouth and chin.
Looking for us. Looking for me.
The painted man laughed and said a word.
My heart jumped.
The old men turned and faced each other.
Another barked word and they fell towards the centre, stumbling loud with the arthritic click and crack of joints. They came together, a collision of bone, and began to fight.
We all watched that slow dance, sawdust kicked in dreaming floats and drifts, the ripple of buttock and haunch, the dangling swing of genitals like limp sleeves, ending in little shocked and puckering mouths. The old men grappled, wrapping arms around and grunting with the effort—the tent rang with the burst of breath and groan of struggle.
They came apart, collided again. It was almost love—a long embrace, an open mouth clamped against a naked shoulder, a hand gripping a thigh and leaving a white handprint behind. They broke apart again and a slow-gathered fist cracked the front of Granddad’s neck—all could hear the noise of closing meat suddenly shutting off a breath.
Granddad folded, but didn’t fall; he rose and stuck his thumb in the other man’s eye, calling forth a howl as he ground the digit in.
My family sat and watched the fight.
It went on for a very long time.
Around us the creak of shifting bodies, the soft whisper of voices. Beside me Nathan slumped on the bench until he was lying on his spine. Listlessly he kicked the seat before him.
“Stop that Nathan,” my mother hissed, and he pulled himself into something like order. She leaned over me and spoke to my father. “The triplets are bored,” she said, “Will we go?”
My father was distracted, his eyes on the fight below.
“What do you think?” she prompted him.
“You go,” he whispered eventually, “Take them for ice cream or something…” and in the dark three nodding boys, their grins like triplet sickle moons. They were already on their feet and tugging at her jumper. She turned to me.
“Do you want to stay?”
The smack of an elbow into gut travelled up to us.
“Or do you want to come for ice cream?”
I opened my mouth but my father spoke for me. “He’s fine, aren’t you?”
I looked into his eyes. Recognised the pleading there.
“Yes,” I said.
She smiled and smoothed my hair. “Alright. Let me know how your granddad gets on.” With that my mother and the triplets made their way down the steps—my mother slowly, ponderously, taking them one at a time, the boys dashing to the bottom and back to her, three times, four times.
My father and I sat in silence.
Below us naked men traded blows.
They rested for minutes.
They traded blows.
I looked sidelong. My father’s hands were dead claws, popcorn an unsuitable jollyness of white between. It spilled, one by one, as his hands clenched. His smile was plastic, his eyes resolutely locked ahead.
A puff tumbled from bag to wooden floor.
He was speaking.
He had been for minutes.
I made myself listen.
“You’re the eldest…” he whispered, each sentence was a measured thing, separated from its fellows by a long breath.
“I want you to promise me…”
“When my time comes… When I get too old. When I’ve no use any more…”
“You’ll hide me from the painted man?”
“You’ll get me out?”
“You won’t let this happen to me?”
“Never let this happen, son.”
And with that last sentence hanging in the air we sat together and watched the fight. In time one of the old men wins—Granddad, blood across the knuckles of his left hand. He staggers and the cage of his chest rises and falls so fast it should shatter in pieces.
He peers into the darkness, strains to pull it apart and find his family within. He fails to find us before he is led away.
The painted man leers at the crowd and smiles. His words make the microphone screech in pain—he lets it drop to hang upon its chord.
Instantly all light is gone.
I am alone, surrounded by unknown bodies in utter dark.
Tonight, I know, I will dream.
Brown broken teeth.
Bone and black.
The painted man.
Those who remain are seated round the kitchen table.
We are outvoted by Nathan and Frank and Joseph. Our sister, her blonde hair in a frazzled bun, throws her hands in the air. “Fine,” she snaps, “Fine!” She pulls herself away from the table, carefully angling the round of her belly out. “Why am I even here? You don’t care what I have to say. Your minds are already made up.”
Turning in the doorway, she rakes the point of her finger across the faces of the triplets. “I don’t want anything to do with it— take him out, leave him there, it all means the same to me— I don’t care. I’m done.” She shakes her head. “I’m done with the lot of you.”
I rise and she looks at me and she has always had the power to cut—“You’re the eldest,” she says to me, “And you know this is wrong. But you’re going to let this happen, aren’t you?”
I look at her and all my words have shrivelled up.
She leaves the house. In the swing and slam of the door I see the men and their van ready to take my father away. One of them smiles a glassy smile. The other glances at his watch.
The door closes.
I hear my children crying in the next room.
Joseph is speaking in a low voice: “We can’t look after him anymore. He’s a danger to himself. He’s not safe around children.”
I leave my brothers at the table and go into my father’s room.
I kneel by his bed.
“Da,” I say.
In pyjamas and dressing gown my father sits, staring at the slow movement of his slippered feet.
“Dad,” I say.
My father smiles and takes my hand. “Is everything okay?” he asks, “You want me to take the children to school? Is that today?”
I shake my head. “No Da, thank you, that’s not today.”
He smiles and taps his forehead. “Just… things get a bit cloudy.”
He squeezes my hand.
“You know how it is.”
I nod my head. I know how it is.
I look at him. Diminished, shrinking, before me, lost since my mother died. Clothes hang, open at neck and wrist. His eyes crowded out by light and glass. Without teeth his face sinks in folds.
“Let me help you,” I say. Slowly, I get him dressed.
He asks me about my wife and children.
He asks me about the job I left two years ago.
I tell him everything is fine. Everything is good, everyone is happy.
Everything is fine.
His hand on my shoulder as he steps out of his trousers.
“Remember the tent?” he asks me. “What was it we went to see? Was it clowns or something?”
…I dreamt last night… every night for years…
“Yes Dad… Clowns… I remember.”
When he is dressed I lead him outside where the men have questions for him. I let him answer the first few but he grows confused and I finish the rest. He looks at me and smiles, wringing hands together. “I did alright, didn’t I son?”
“Blue,” says the man and his colleague takes a pair of metal jaws from their sleeve. My father takes a step back. “What is that?” his eyes are wary, his breath short “What’s that for?”
I hold out my hand. “Let me.”
The men look at each other.
“I can keep him calm,” I say.
One shrugs. The other passes the metal thing to me. He points. “Just pull back the guard—”
“I’ve seen it done before,” I snap and the man holds up his hands and makes a face. “Dad,” I say, “Dad this is going to hurt you for a moment. But only a moment. Dad… look at me.”
He is staring at the end of the driveway.
“They’ve parked on my flowerbeds, son. Look.” He points. “They’re ruining the flowers.”
I try to turn his face to mine.
“I planted them. I worked for years on them. You remember?”
I place the metal mouth on the flesh of my father’s ear.
“You remember, son?”
I pull the trigger.
“Oh!” and tears are starting in his eyes— the mouth comes away, leaving its blue and slash of red.
“Sorry, Dad. Shush, I’m sorry Dad.” I drop the thing, and take his head in my hands to kiss. “I’m sorry.”
He looks at me, a wounded child. “Why did you do that?”
“It had to be done,” I whisper, “We can’t look after you anymore.”
His fingers close on the leaf of plastic and there is clarity in his eyes. “It’s that day, isn’t it?”
He stares at his wet fingers.
“I didn’t get out.”
“No, Dad,” and I hide my face behind hands.
“That’s okay,” he whispers, “Don’t cry, son.”
I don’t deserve that.
They take him and lead him obedient to the van. He stops, just once, to look at flowers crushed under tyres. They seat him and slide the door closed.
My father waves.
The triplets have not come to see him go, but my eldest, Matthew, stands beside me. “Where’s granddad going?”
I look down and rescue a smile for him.
Never let him feel the same horror.
Never let it inhabit him as it inhabits me.
“No big deal,” I say, “We’ll see him again in a short while.”
My fingers work in his hair.
“No big deal.”
Stink and silence of utter dark.
We sit and watch.
My father will not come out on his own and must be dragged into the circle. “What’s happening?” he cries, “Please, what’s happening?”
Foetal in sawdust he is kicked and rolls with it, gasping.
The grin of the painted man in shadow.
Dreamt it would be this way…
“Son,” I whisper, “You’re the eldest.”
Matthew stares at the slow graceless clatter of knuckle and flesh.
“Don’t let this happen to me,” I say.
Matthew looks into my eyes.
“Please, don’t let this happen to me,” I repeat.
My boy looks down at his grandfather. “You let it happen to him,” he says.
No answer to that.
Below us in a circle of light, the mismatch goes on.
My father roaring.
Beyond and smiling, the painted man.
I keep track.
I know today is the last day, wiped in antiseptic lemon light.
No shadows. Everything can be seen.
Ache and pain as slowly I fold myself. I haven’t the strength to urge myself on. Everything cracks and groans and protests as I get down. The cold floor shocks—nothing between skin and bone to keep my heat within. Chill invades and will not leave; dust, and my breath is a thing to chase and catch.
I have nowhere else to go.
I know they will find me. Under the bed, the first place they will look and I will not be able to fight them. But I’ll try. I close my eyes and try to breathe but he is there in the darkness—the painted man, white suit and broken teeth—I feel the terror of waking soaked in sweat, that memory fresh as if I am a boy again.
A gasp leaves me, leaves me ashamed.
Suddenly scattering feet—the triplets, and voices, hushed, fast— Matthew and his wife, and there, the doorbell, ringing again and again.
The door to my room opens.
Sweat—stomach cold and sick, sting and heat as my bladder fails— my voice, so weak and thin: “Please. I don’t want to go. Don’t make me. Don’t want to end things there…”
I hide my face.
“Given too much of myself… Wasted years of sleep—”
Unkind hands reach for me.
“Don’t take me to the tent. Don’t make me fight for him.”
They reach and try to pull me out.
In shadowless light all faces arrayed— my children, grandchildren.
His triplets, wrenching my fingers apart.
His wife, cradling the belly.
His eldest, watching, back against the wall, horror on his face.
They named him for me.
I stare back. I want him to understand.
Break it. Break the cycle.
But Matthew has a hold of me, whispering: “It’s no big deal… Dad, you said yourself… It’s no big deal.”
They pull me out and into light.
We are all made monsters.
–Story by Graham Tugwell