(The estimated reading time for this is 6 minutes)
“Not Your Conventional Hero” © 2014 by Gary Fry. All rights reserved.
The following is a prelude to Gary Fry’s new novel, Severed, which is available today. It features Severed’s main character Stephen Hobbs as a young boy.
When Stephen Hobbs was nine or ten years old, back in the 1980s, he’d suffered a terrible dream.
It had been his best friend’s fault, a lad called Barry Jenkins, whose parents had just bought a VHS video recorder, allowing their son to record whatever he wanted late at night, when he was supposed to be asleep. His parents didn’t understand how the system worked, and so Barry had often programmed it to capture seedy foreign films broadcast on the newly created Channel 4. Then, with his mum and dad at work the next day, he’d invite Stephen round after school to watch these forbidden delights.
In truth, Stephen didn’t enjoy many of them. Some were tastelessly explicit and others rather cavalier in the male makers’ attitudes towards women. He liked neither the “slasher films” of the time, nor edgy porn that left little to the imagination. But while his friend Barry had sniggered and gasped at such images, Stephen had taken pleasure in scenes that rose above their base sources.
He recalled one in particular. It involved a woman appearing at the end of a long dark corridor, maybe upstairs in some shadowy old house that was otherwise empty. The woman started pacing forwards, the elegant dress she wore cut above the knee and stopping at her shoulders, rippling around her fine frame like playful liquid.
This had put Stephen in mind of another film he’d seen lately, a suspense thriller made by someone called Hitchpot or maybe Hatchcock. It had been about international espionage, and in one scene a woman wearing a similarly long dress had been stabbed with a knife and fallen onto the tiled floor of an exotic villa. Her dress had spread like blood flowing from her body, and this image had stuck with Stephen, appealing to his superior sensibilities the way he sometimes understood schoolwork much quicker than his similarly poverty-stricken fellow pupils.
The woman in this latest film had kept on coming, towards the on-looking camera, and then, almost reaching the lens, she’d raised both long arms before fiddling with something around the back of her neck. This was obviously the knot that held the straps of her dress in place, and moments later—inducing a thrill of erotic delight in the young Stephen Hobbs, leaving him addicted to la femme for life—the dress dropped, fluttering across her sculpted, moonlit body. The woman ceased moving, standing close to what could only be a window. Her full breasts were illuminated by a milky hue, her thighs were smooth curves, her hips a wide hourglass. She smiled mischievously, as if prompting the viewer to ask who she was, to solve a mystery that was ineffably her…
But then Barry had switched off the video recording and said, “Sod this for a game of soldiers. Fancy a game of footie?”
Stephen had agreed; fitting into London at that period of social change had required a certain chameleon cunning. But later that day, he’d returned home with many new feelings inside him, like seeds germinating in fertile soil.
His family—a timid mother and bullish father—couldn’t afford a video recorder, largely because the only income coming into their squat Brixton terrace was whatever his mum earned from a cleaning job at a local office. Dad was hopeless, always ducking away from employment and starting one scheme after another, none of which ever came to fruition. He’d take out his frustrations on his wife and boy, especially after returning home from the pub every other night. But just then, as Stephen advanced up his litter-strewn lane, these were the least of his concerns.
His mood that day must have been unsettled, because, after reaching his front yard, he’d found himself looking at another house up the road, this one derelict and rumored to have once been occupied by a woman who’d killed herself. That was all local people would say: that she’d “killed herself.” A year earlier, Stephen and Barry had made it their solemn duty to learn more about this story, but nobody appeared to know anything, or if they did had refused to tell the boys about it. By the end of their tenacious investigation—it had taken a whole day, by God—they knew neither how old the woman had been, nor what circumstances had been like.
Her life must have been bad if she’d decided to end it all, Stephen had reflected, his suspicions about the case given fresh impetus. After going indoors, he speculated about the former owner, picturing her as some cheesy damsel-in-distress and himself a great hero rescuing her from danger.
It must have been these fanciful thoughts that triggered the terrible dream that night. Stephen had gone to bed early in the hope of avoiding his dad coming in from the pub later and looking for someone to take out his frustrations on. These spells of violence had triggered a rebellious streak in the boy, and he’d have difficulties dealing with authority all his life. But back then, at only nine or ten years old, he’d still to bear the full brunt of paternal cruelty and was able to sleep easily, his head full of erotic optimism.
What seemed like only seconds later, he found himself no longer in his home, but inside the one at the end of the street, where a woman had once “killed herself.” Just like in the film his friend had shown him, Stephen stood near a window in an upstairs corridor whose length seemed to exceed that of the property viewed from the outside. But dreams were like that, weren’t they? Nothing ever made much sense. And when a woman appeared at the end of this corridor, Stephen desperately hoped nothing else unreal would occur, shaking his fragile psyche to its core.
The woman started walking slowly towards him.
None of this was right. In the film, the elegant woman with the shapely figure had worn a stylish dress. But this woman, maybe as young as the other, wore nothing at all. She wasn’t even attractive, just an emaciated figure with dark holes in scrawny arms which Stephen knew implied drug use. She staggered his way, pale flesh illuminated by the sickly moonlight from behind Stephen, her face a travesty of unhealthy features, breasts little more than flaccid bags hanging from a bony torso. Then she lifted her arms from bruised hips, but unlike the woman in the film, she didn’t cease walking; she simply continued moving towards Stephen as a toothless grin grew wider beneath bloodshot eyes.
Then she unfastened her skin.
The whole lot—every inch of muscle and sinew that covered her bony frame—came rippling down like a thick, un-ironed dress. This left not fine, sculpted body parts, but only a rickety skeleton tenuously holding in coils of damaged intestines and failing internal organs. The smell was horrendous, like a dropped bag of rotting kennel meat. Then, her knuckly feet stepping out of coils of fallen flesh, she started laughing, raising the sticks of her arms, as if hoping to embrace Stephen. Drawing closer, her thighbones rattled and ribcage lost its stacked symmetry. She said nothing through the toothy slit in her skull, but her shadowy eye sockets nonetheless seemed to convey a wordless message: find out who I am, find out who I am, find out who I am…
A second later, Stephen jerked upright in his bed, snatching open his eyes. He looked around, seeing his familiar, poorly decorated bedroom.
A dream. Only a dream. That was all it had been.
At least he thought that was true. But in the years that followed—times that involved many drugs, drinks and traumatic episodes—he didn’t always feel certain about this. Indeed, he often wondered if the events in that derelict house hadn’t happened, after all.
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