Stephen McQuiggan

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.

THE WRITING’S ON THE WALL.

‘I didn’t do it,’ Zed protested, ‘I swear it wasn’t me.’

Rhea raised an eyebrow, that familiar and infuriating look that belittled and accused at the same time. ‘You forget I used to help you out all the time,’ she said. ‘I know your work inside out. You telling me Archie or Bo did it? You’re the one always boasting nobody could copy your style.’

Zed looked again at the graffiti daubed on the wall (his wall – known to everyone as the Bulletin Board – the place where he always showcased his latest work) and shook his head. It certainly was one hell of a good imitation. If he hadn’t known better he would have sworn it was his, but one look at the legend sprayed there was enough to put paid to that notion: RHEA JOHNS IS A SLUT.

‘I just can’t get my head round why you’d do such a thing, Zed. I haven’t been with anyone since …’

Go on, say it, willed Zed, just come out and actually say it for once, say ‘Since the baby died’.

He felt a chill course through him and retracted the thought immediately. Rhea blamed him for little Tom’s death and a part of him – a part he’d tried to bury along with his son – did too. He had been supposed to be minding him, but Zed had been busy sketching new designs and Tom wouldn’t stop crying and he had given him a shake, not too hard, and…

…and the doctors had all agreed that the baby had a heart defect, virtually undetectable, and had never even mentioned the shaking. Rhea had never mentioned it but Zed knew she blamed him.

‘…Since we split,’ she finished quietly. ‘You put this up here,’ she pointed at the graffiti, ‘knowing everyone on the estate will believe it. Zed the paint prophet telling it like it is, socking it to the Man yet again.’

‘Rhea,’ he began, but she was already walking away. ‘I’ll spray over it, I’ll –’

‘Just leave me alone.’

He hadn’t the heart to knock up a new masterpiece so he settled for blitzing the Bulletin Board white before going home to brood. Rhea was right – no-one else in this poxy little town could come close to emulating his style. Could Archie or Bo have put the bite on him and ripped him off? The idea was laughable.

Still, he went to the drawer where he stashed his piece-book, the birthplace of all his designs, just to make sure. It was still there. He went to bed at a loss, the hurt on Rhea’s face keeping him awake until, deciding to call Archie first thing in the morning, he fell asleep.

But it was Archie who rang him before the sun had cleared the flats across the carpark.

‘Slow your roll,’ Zed barked, rubbing the creases from his cheeks as he tried to make sense of Archie’s unpunctuated ravings down the phone. Archie was incapable, or unwilling, to take his advice.

From the few words he could make out before Archie hung up, Zed gathered they were to meet at the Bulletin Board. Skipping breakfast, and with a sinking feeling roiling in his belly, Zed went out to rendezvous with his #2.

He could see what had agitated Archie even as he stepped over the crest of the bank and onto the wasteland. The Bulletin Board was crowded with old school bubble letters declaring that Archie was ‘FIDDLING WITH HIS NIECE’. The Gallery was a solid fill, replete with (Zed had to admit) a damn good depiction of a violin, and Archie forcing a schoolgirl to fellate him whilst he beat her backside with a bow. Even from this distance Zed could see the mural bore his distinctive tag.

‘What the fuck, man!’ Archie strode toward him, the veins in his neck protruding like scaffolding for his apoplectic head.

Zed placed his hands in the air, palms forward. ‘Wasn’t me, Archie Boy, so just calm down. I’ve already had Rhea on my case – someone is playing silly buggers and trying to blacken my name.’

Your name?’ Archie looked torn between tears and laughter. ‘You fuckin kidding me?’

Zed ignored him, strolled up to the gallery wall to inspect it at close quarters. Damn, it was a fine job – almost, but not quite, up to his own high standards.

‘See,’ he said, beckoning Archie over, ‘here on the ‘N’, they’ve used a fat cap for wide coverage and you know that ain’t my scene.’

‘Yeah,’ Archie spat, ‘but they’ve also used German Montana and Krylon, and that most definitely is. You really trying to deny this is your handiwork? Who else round here is even close to being that good?’

Zed felt ridiculously pleased at this backhanded compliment, but knew better than to show it. ‘C’mon, Archie boy – you know I’m Zed the Hat, trustworthy as they come.’

‘What the fuck am I gonna do about this?’ Archie gestured at the wall with a feeble flick of his wrist.

Get yourself a trumpet and march round it until it falls, Zed was tempted to say but bit his lip instead. Archie wouldn’t have read the bible. Archie hadn’t read anything that hadn’t been sprayed on a wall. ‘I’ll help you paint over it.’

‘Too late, everyone’s already seen it. Fucking Mickey at the Slot-Shop has it as his screensaver.’

‘Doesn’t matter, no-one’s gonna actually believe it.’

Archie shot him a hurt look and then slunk away. After Zed had blanked the gallery out yet again he pondered putting up a new design, one that would showcase his talent and exonerate Archie into the bargain, but by the time he was finished he was too tired. Tired of pointless labour and tired of the attitude of others. Archie hadn’t even bothered with reasonable doubt; he had sprayed him guilty from the get-go.

Zed went to The Bull for a pint, to drink away the nagging pettiness that had been afflicting him since Rhea’s phone call. He might even hear a few rumours of who was trying to steal his crown and take his place as head man on the scene.

The Bull was crowded when he arrived but instead of being met with the jovial bonhomie he was accustomed to (and the quasi-adulation that he craved), he was greeted with only cursory nods and desultory glances. By the time he’d fought his way to the bar and ordered a stout the muttering had began behind his back.

Poor Rhea, poor Archie, ran the chorus. Fuck this for a game of soldiers, thought Zed, downing his pint. He was about to head out and try The Frog or The Whistler when he was accosted by Marty Mee and his band of thugs. Zed tensed involuntarily and cursed beneath his breath – show these Neanderthals even a glimmer of fear and they’d have you for breakfast.

Normally they got on okay. Marty was often effusive in his praise of Zed’s work and had even asked him to do his bedroom wall for him – something that Zed had managed to put off indefinitely.

‘Marty Mee, my old mucker!’ Zed hoped his cheery tone would nip any hostility in the bud.

Marty shrugged off the greeting as if he hadn’t heard; his shaven gang stared at Zed as if suspicious of language. ‘What’s this about Archie being a paedo?’

Zed spread his hands, a placid gesture intended to pave the way for the defence of his #2, but it was evident Marty had already arrived at his own conclusions before entering the bar.

‘I always knew there was something about that little rat – didn’t I always say so, boys?’ Marty’s slack-jawed entourage nodded, though not in unison. ‘I always see him with his brother’s little girl, holding hands and the like … the dirty fucking sod!’

‘He brings her to school,’ Zed began.

‘Yeah, and we all know what he’s fucking teaching her!’ Marty laughed, his companions joining in, a little too late for reassurance. He gave Zed a hearty slap on the back. ‘Fair play to you for shoppin’ him though, can’t be easy finding out your mate is a nonce.’

‘I didn’t –’

Marty’s face was only capable of two expressions – vacant joy or concentrated hate – and settled on the latter. ‘Though you shouldn’t have bad-mouthed your ex like that – whore or no whore – not after what happened her little baby.’

Our baby,’ Zed ventured.

Another back slap. ‘Here let me get you a pint.’ Marty, his face returning to joy mode, was not the kind to be generous with his money, nor the kind to take a refusal lightly when he was. Several hours, and many pints, later Zed had been harangued by so much anti-Archie propaganda that he staggered home half believing Archie deserved all he got.

The next morning, before his tongue had unstuck itself from the fuzzy roof of his mouth, the ringing phone had hooked Zed from his bed as another strident voice hurled accusations at him before he had time to dress.

It was Bo this time, her voice incandescent with a wet fury that he had never associated with her before but which seemed familiar all the same. He made his way once more to the Bulletin Board, determined to root out the impostor who was making his life a misery. Someone had it in for him – yet the only ones capable of pulling such a con were the ones who were being slandered.

As Zed climbed the bank he fully expected to see Bo’s name greeting him on the gallery but, though she was standing there with her arms folded and her eyes pinging lasers from under her fringe, the name plastered on the wall was her husband’s.

DANNY, YOUR WIFE’S SLEEPING WITH YOUR BROTHER.

The naked girl bending over was undoubtedly her though, right down to the dimples.

That’s a cracking font, Zed thought as he trudged toward Bo, and an inventive choice of colour with a seamless blend.

‘Before you start,’ he pointed an angry finger at her, ‘hear me out. I dunno who, or even why, but someone’s taking the piss, okay? It wasn’t me.’

Bo said nothing, just stared for a while, and in a way that made him feel even more uncomfortable.

‘Do you remember,’ she spoke so quietly he had to lean in to hear her, ‘when the two of us went to the city last Easter to check out the pro crews work?’

Zed nodded; it had been a great trip, a real eye-opener, and an incentive to get out of the shithole town he was stuck in.

‘Remember when we were looking at the tags? You came up with one on the train back – you said you were gonna use it on something special just for me.’

‘The little mouse,’ Zed smiled. He had forgotten about that. ‘I will one day too, I promise.’

Bo stepped aside, revealing the mouse shaped tag at the bottom of the gallery. ‘How could you, you bastard?’

Zed couldn’t tear his eyes off the mouse. He felt like all the juice had been sucked out of him.

‘How did you know?’ He’d never seen her cry before, not tough little Bo. ‘How did you fucking know?’

‘We’ll get it scrubbed down before Danny sees it and –’

‘He already has. He’s packing up his things.’ She turned and walked away. ‘And no way is my arse ever that size, you bastard.’

With her went the last of the crew. Zed had often told himself he didn’t need them, that Archie and Bo were deadweight, that he’d ditch them and move to the city and join up with a professional crew and make his name, but now that they were gone the doubts began to seep in. And who, now, would compliment him on his latest masterpiece and tell him how good he already knew he was?

Whoever was doing this, Zed thought as he studied their handiwork on the Bulletin Board.

He would camp out here tonight – the whole damn week if he had to – and catch whoever it was in the act. The showdown would either end in a fight or a union. It didn’t really matter either way. Bo was gone, Archie would never forgive him, and he’d burnt his boats with Rhea a long time ago.

If Bo and Archie were guilty they deserved all they got, and as for Rhea – well, she’d just have to come to terms with the fact that babies died all the time. If you didn’t live in the real world you were just sleepwalking through life.

He wiped the gallery clean and then made a den in the bushes on the edge of the wasteland. He returned later in the day with a thermos, a sleeping bag, and a bag of sandwiches and secreted himself under the prickly branches. People passed by regularly – the Bulletin Board lay on a through-way – and a lot of kids turned up to see his work, whilst others had obviously been drawn in the hope of further scandal. But none of them stayed long. They stared at the white brick for a time and then moved on.

As the temperature fell along with the light, Zed cocooned himself up in his sleeping bag and downed coffee after coffee in a bid to stay awake. Boredom weighed heavily on his eyelids. No-one passed this way after the pubs closed save for Marty Mee and his cohorts – their gorilla silhouettes, the moon glinting off their shaven heads, signifying their identity as much as the pointless racket that always seemed to accompany them like a personalised storm.

As the moon hid itself in an industrial cloud stack Zed drifted off, awoken by the chatter of birds and by the numb, fizzing protest of the arm he’d been sleeping on. He shook the leaves from his hair and crawled out into the crumpled morning. The Bulletin Board was still white.

He needed something warm inside him, so he made his way to the Grillimanjaro for something fried and greasy. It was the only place he could think of where his current homeless look would not be out of place. Joe, the cook, proprietor, and general one man band of the operation, was reading the paper and ignoring his rag-tag band of regulars when he arrived. Zed ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and plonked himself down by the window, hoping the thin sunlight would revive him.

‘You knew that kid they found this morning?’ Joe asked, splashing a mug of tea down on the table and then sucking the thumb that had been dipped in it. ‘You’re about the same age.’

‘What kid?’

‘The one they found in the estate,’ Joe said slowly, as if addressing a mentally defective child.

‘Found?’ Zed felt a heaviness in his gut as if all his fatigue were concentrated there, leaving his mind sickeningly clear.

Joe sighed as if fatigued himself by the idiocy of others. ‘The one who had his bollocks chopped off.’ He made a scissoring action with his fingers. ‘Bled out like a pig. Can’t remember the name – Andy, Ally, Archie – something like that.’

‘Is he …  dead?’

Joe laughed. ‘No, he’s signed up for the marathon next week – what you think? They cut off his balls, course he’s fucking dead! Good thing too, they say he was one of those …’ Joe’s voice dropped to a whisper, as if the words he spoke were contagious, ‘…Kiddie-Fiddlers.’

Zed left without touching a bite and feeling several feet smaller by the time he got home, the burden of guilt condensing him into a squat self-loathing caricature of himself. The phone was ringing as he opened the door. His first instinct was to ignore it. It would only be more bad news, more yelled recriminations. The sound bore into his skull though and he was forced to answer if only to stop its maddening racket.

‘Have you heard about Archie?’ It was Rhea, sounding buzzed rather than angry.

‘It wasn’t me.’ It had become his mantra.

‘I know, Zed, I know,’ she told him. ‘Meet me at the Granary. I’ve something to tell you.’ She hung up before he could refuse.

The Granary was where he used to take her when they first met, an old derelict factory out on Harcourt’s Hill overlooking the town. They’d sit up on the flat roof and he would point out the bare walls of the town, telling her of the designs he would fill them with, how he’d paint it all in her name.

Unable to bear his own company, and bolstered by the friendliness of her tone, Zed lit a cigarette and headed out the door. The Granary was more decrepit than he remembered. The air of desertion clung to it so pervasively that by the time he scaled the rusty fire escape up to the roof he fully expected no-one to be there. But Rhea stood smiling, her hands in her pockets, hair dancing in the wind, as he pulled himself up and stood panting, waiting for her to make the next move.

‘I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show,’ she said. ‘Not that I would blame you for that.’

Zed’s bullshit detector started flashing; Rhea was never one to be conciliatory. ‘You said you’d something to tell me about Archie.’

Rhea turned her face away, her profile hidden by her tousled hair. ‘They arrested Marty Mee about an hour ago,’ she said. ‘Still wearing blood stained clothes apparently. He was never the brightest.’

‘I figured as much,’ Zed said. ‘Poor Archie.’

‘He got what was coming to him,’ Rhea said, turning back to him, her eyes flashing. ‘Fucking his little niece when she was little more than a baby.’

It always came back to that word with her – baby – like she had never grown up herself. Zed tried to deflect the conversation before it turned, as it always did, to their own child.

‘Bo and her hubby split too.’

Rhea laughed. ‘Serves her right. Little tart was forever putting it about. You think I don’t know what the two of you got up to in the city?’

‘If we did it was only because you’d no time for me.’

She slapped him hard. ‘I’d no time because I was looking after our baby!’

That word again. There was no escaping it. She went to slap him once more but he grabbed her wrist; felt it tremble in his hand; saw the paint on her fingers; smelt the familiar odour of German Montana. She wriggled free, laughing at the confusion on his face.

‘Remember how I used to copy out all your latest projects for you in your piecebook? I got so good at it. You never noticed, you were so full of yourself, but with just a little practice I surpassed you. In fact, I had to dumb down so that no-one could tell the difference.’

Rhea walked to the far side of the roof as he stared after her, trying to make sense of what she had just told him.

‘It was you,’ he said.

‘Come.’ Rhea beckoned to him, smiling. ‘Wait until you see your latest masterpiece.’

She pointed down, over to the great crumbling white wall of the old linen factory, the one he had been saving for his own defining design, the one he never got quite around to realising. She stood aside as he stepped to the edge.

Zed’s breath hitched in his throat. He spun back to her but Rhea pushed him in the chest before he could demand or protest, and then he was falling, falling, falling. He hit the cracked asphalt and burst like a can of cheap paint.

Rhea stared down as she lit a cigarette, her eyes drifting across the red splat below and over to the linen factory wall. I KILLED BABY TOM – read the legend above Zed’s prominent tag. As suicide notes went it was quite creative.

They’ll think he offed himself out of remorse, Rhea thought, not that he’d ever had any. It was as scarce to his nature as talent. Still, she thought, as she made her way down the rickety fire escape, she had left him with a lasting legacy – it might not have been the masterpiece he’d always craved, but it was the most honest thing he’d ever done.

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