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.
HAPPY TO CHAT
Wendell Craven loved his job. He was a delivery driver for the local LUKA superstore and he spent most of his working day by himself in his cab, trundling around the outer district of town, bringing groceries to elderly ladies in their little cottages, or high-powered housewives too busy to shop for themselves.
Wendell would leave the boxes on their stoop, ring the doorbell, and then off he’d go. Sometimes, he would be forced to wave and smile if the clients popped out quickly enough, but that was a small price to pay. He played no music in his truck as he drove, that constant mindless babble set his teeth on edge. At best the radio was irritating, a hornet in a metal bin, at worst it was a glimpse of an argumentative hell.
Wendell liked things quiet, at least that was what his mother always said when anyone raised the subject of her boy’s perceived oddity. Now that his mother was gone Wendell rarely bothered to communicate at all. When people spoke to him he felt awkward and embarrassed, like a bald man at the barber’s. Apart from the fact they were oxygen reliant carbon based life forms, he couldn’t think of a single other thing he had in common with ‘people’, and so cared little if they viewed him odd or not.
His home was empty, even when he was there. He had no pets. Even Nature seemed to take the hint, for no flowers grew in his garden, no hardy weeds poked through the pale slabs, and no birds perched on his fence to sing. He owned no television, no laptop, and his cell phone (a work mobile courtesy of LUKA) had one solitary contact – Mr Gillis, his supervisor.
Not that Wendell ever answered when Gillis called. His supervisor had soon twigged on that the only way to reach him was by text. Alone, with no-one to bother him, Wendell was free to sit and look at his paintings, to dream himself into those silent landscapes. He loved Constable and Turner and their stationery idylls of wide open spaces, with nary a telephone mast or a pylon in sight. Trees didn’t feel the need to speak, pastures never flapped their gums; the paintings said all they needed to by their dignified show of beauty. You just couldn’t beat a Still Life – even the name made him feel calm.
To the outside world, so loud and chaotic, his passion no doubt appeared lonely but to Wendell it was bliss.
The bubble he had blown around himself, to insulate himself from the modern world, began to deflate, oh so slowly, as he feared it always would, one weekend as he lay in the bath regarding the sunlight on the tiles and his brain roamed ever deeper into its own mute and labyrinthine pathways. It was a text from Mr Gillis that put the first pinhole in his immaculate construction and, as he read it, he could almost hear the hiss of his comfortable life escaping through it.
New Initiative from LUKA starts Next Week – the text informed him – COME TO MY OFFICE FIRST THING MON. MORN. Wendell winced as he read it; all those capitals seemed to be shouting.
What could it mean? Probably just some new leaflets to hand out with the deliveries, or maybe even a new coloured tabard. Yet try as he might, Wendell couldn’t shake the feeling that it was far from that simple. No, Gillis wouldn’t call him in unless it was something bad. Wendell’s placid solitude was destroyed, plagued by inner voices that preached rumour and scandal all weekend long.
‘A large proportion of our online clientele,’ Gillis began on Monday morning, ‘are, as you are well aware, elderly or housebound in one way or another, cut off from society due to infirmity or the simple logistics of their location.’
He paused for Wendell to agree but Wendell was grinding his teeth, trying to breathe under his supervisor’s deluge of words. He had a real fear that Gillis would, at any moment, start chewing on his ears.
‘LUKA, a corporate giant and touchstone of the local community,’ Gillis carried on, unperturbed, ‘has decided on a new initiative for all our drivers – a way to reinforce our message of caring, to cement our standing in our loyal customers’ hearts, like so.’ He slapped a badge on Wendell’s chest with a hefty flourish.
Wendell rotated the badge to see his own sour, laminated face staring up at him, surrounded by the terrifying slogan: HAPPY TO CHAT!
‘A few minutes of blether with the old dears, a chit-chat with the chair-bound … Head Office forecast it could increase orders by as much as twenty per cent in that demographic. What do you think, Mr Craven?’
Wendell, who had such a small store of words, could find none now. He got the feeling that Gillis knew that only too well, had been counting on it in fact.
‘Excellent!’ his supervisor beamed. ‘Now, off you pop. And remember, they’ll put more in their shopping bag if you give them a chinwag.’
Wendell was several miles down the road, soothed by the soft rumble of his truck, before his heart resumed its normal canter. He had no skill in conversation – all that claptrap and filler, repetition and recommendation – what was the point in it all?
He covered the badge with a clammy hand as he drove (he dare not remove it, LUKA had eyes everywhere) but even the feel of it made him anxious – it seemed to be made up of tiny jabbering teeth all nipping at his palm.
Wendell concentrated on the passing trees and fields, the living embodiment of the paintings he adored, hoping that somehow the badge, and the whole miserable morning, would somehow melt away in the relentless silence.
His first few drops were a breeze. Wendell deposited the groceries on the porch, rang the bell, and was away before the curtains twitched. Nothing to worry about after all, he told himself, nothing’s changed. The world may have gotten louder but technology had inadvertently given him an out – he could do almost everything online, from paying his bills, to ordering food, to booking a holiday on some deserted isle, and all with his finger rather than his mouth.
LUKA may well be the number one retailer but they had dropped the ball with this whole talking business – in a few short years, human beings would never need to speak again. Wendell smiled, visualizing all those atrophying vocal chords, but his smile froze as his truck tumbled over the potholes of Lake Lane and he saw Laverne perched by her garden gate.
She was older than the National Anthem and resembled a squidgy pink bun that had been left out in the rain and pecked mercilessly by carrion birds. Normally, this was his easiest call. Wendell had always regarded it as his safe spot, a time to catch his breath from the inherent dangers of his run, for Laverne was about as mobile as a trackless Panzer and spent most of her day negotiating her walking frame from the kitchen to her orthopaedic chair.
But not today.
Today she looked as if she had been alerted of the new LUKA initiative and had risen with the dew to reap its full benefits. Her jaws twitched with the anticipation of a relentless raconteur. Wendell considered driving on but Laverne was already raising one arthritic claw from her stroller in greeting. He gave her a sickly smile in return.
She was precisely the kind of desiccated old hag who’d delight in reporting him. Wendell knew that Gillis would be only too grateful for an excuse to fire him and replace him with an app. People like Gillis resented silence; they saw it as an affront, a reflection of something within themselves they’d rather ignore.
And what then? What were his chances of finding another job as perfect as this?
He might end up in a shop dealing with the jaw-breaking public, or on a factory floor amid a faceless mass of nicknames and shouting, manufacturing banter and gossip 24/7.
With a shudder, Wendell stepped out of his truck and moved around to open the back flap. He could maybe escape with a terse ‘Hello’ and a comment on the weather. This was a one-off, he reassured himself – there was no way the old woman was fit to make it out to her front garden every morning.
He took down a small box of fruit and veg, checked it off his clipboard and, with a ghost train smile, carried it over to the waiting Laverne. She was already chattering away before he opened the gate; Wendell gripped the box so hard his fingers pierced the cardboard.
‘Could you just pop that into the hall for me?’ Her rheumy old eyes alighted on his badge. ‘Thank you, Wendell.’
He manoeuvred round her with a grunt, but was forced to wait by her front door as she snailed her way down the path, keys jingling in her chicken skin hand. Continental drift was quicker, Wendell thought, setting the box down and taking the keys from her to hurry things along.
‘Wait a second, son,’ she gasped, one hand on her stroller, the other gripping his arm with surprising firmness, using it as a lever to pull him down to her level. ‘I was waiting for you to show up. I need your help with something.’ She squinted up at him, the faint embers of her eyes framed by her ash coloured hair. She gave a theatrical nod toward the door Wendell had just opened. ‘Mr Grigson’s in there and I can’t get rid of him.’
‘Well, that’s … not …really …’ When he spoke, Wendell’s voice was heavy, ungainly, like a thing kept long in storage and in need of a good dusting down before use. ‘That is … have you tried calling the police?’
‘He’s taken my phone, that’s why I was waiting for you. He’s always had a taillight out, if you know what I mean.’
Wendell offered her his work cell, proffering it to her as if she were holding him at gunpoint.
‘No, no, no, I want you to talk to him.’ She tapped his badge with a swollen finger, causing a tiny death knell to echo down the hall. ‘Just a quick chat. You’re a big man. I think he’ll pay attention after a chat with a big man. Follow me,’ she said, shuffling by on a wave of lavender and baking powder, ‘I’d like him out of my house as soon as possible.’
She stopped, turned her cake like head back toward him. ‘Mr Grigson has the most bizarre ideas. Bizarre. I only say that to put you on your guard.’
He followed her into the kitchen to find a small, wiry man rummaging through her cupboards, flinging cereal boxes and cans of prunes over his shoulder. He stopped as Wendell entered, his eyes creasing up behind his thick glasses in magnified suspicion.
‘And who would you be then?’ Mr Grigson scratched at his bulbous nose; it looked as if it would come off in one piece with his spectacles. ‘The son, I suppose?’
Wendell looked down at the groceries in his arms, at the hateful badge on his chest, but kept his own counsel.
‘He’s the LUKA man,’ Laverne said. ‘He’s here for a little chat with you and then he’s going to take you home, remember?’
‘I’m not going anywhere until I find the evidence,’ Mr Grigson said, kicking through the detritus he’d pulled from the shelves with the vigour of a man half his age. I know you’ve the poison hidden here somewhere and when I find it you’re going to the jail, you vindictive old bitch.’
‘Now do you see what I’ve been telling you?’ Laverne appealed to Wendell. ‘Now do you see what a dirty dingus he is?’
‘Did she also tell you that she murdered my sweet Sally?’ Grigson fired back.
Wendell raised an eyebrow. He was out of his depth in everyday conversation – this one, with allusions to homicide, had him mentally drowning. Grigson looked like the kind of man who would carry a fresh linen handkerchief, and as such, Wendell was disposed to believe him. Laverne tutted disgustedly as Wendell managed to tweak out, like a splinter beneath a fingernail, the single word ‘Sally?’
‘My cat,’ Grigson nodded, on the verge of tears. ‘She poisoned her.’
Wendell did not experience much relief at the revelation that Sally belonged to another species entirely. Adverse to animals in general, and dogs in particular, he was nonetheless strangely fond of cats; silent, independent, aloof. He gave Laverne a hard glare over a soft frown.
‘I’d never do anything to hurt a living soul, you silly old man,’ Laverne said. ‘Besides, I never even saw your damn cat; it never came into my garden.’
‘Oh no?’ Grigson hobbled over to Wendell and began rooting through the box of groceries he was holding. ‘Aha!’ he trumpeted, holding aloft a can of cat food, parading it before some unseen audience who, in his own mind at least, flanked the kitchen walls. ‘And what do you call this?’
Laverne chewed on her dentures as her face flushed a rather demure pink.
‘I’ll tell you what I call it, shall I?’ Grigson crowed, thrusting the Kitty Liver Treat under the old woman’s nose. ‘I call it a lure, I call it bait. You got Sally in here and you laced her with rat poison, and all because she took the odd little shit in your garden.’
‘Aye, and the dish ran away with the spoon! Everyone knows you’re crazy. Mabel Hare told me you ate soap to get out of the army.’ Laverne raised both hands from her walking frame and held them out to Wendell in supplication. ‘Have a word with him, you can see he is –’
She never got to finish for Grigson was on her surprisingly quickly, bringing the can of cat food down on her skull with a dull thud. Laverne gave a pitiful little squeak, her twig arms flailing uselessly as tears rolled down her face.
‘Oh, here we go, wheel out the onions. Your crying won’t help you now,’ Grigson said, slamming the can into her forehead again and again, as the old woman gradually slumped down the wall.
From where Wendell stood, the scene resembled a child trying to hammer jelly with a monstrous marshmallow, yet he could see that Grigson’s weak, but concerted efforts, were having the desired effect. With a final high-pitched exhalation Laverne sank into a silent heap, her birthday cake of a head burst open and thin jam leaking everywhere.
Grigson gave her one final kick and Wendell heard a rib shatter like a sesame snap. The old man put his hand to her face and slapped her, then straightened up smiling; he ran his bloody hand through his hair, a bland horseshoe that only emphasised his baldness.
Even at this extreme juncture Wendell, unused to watching anything more kinetic and upsetting than his beloved watercolours, struggled to vocalise his emotions. All that escaped him was an equivocal little hiss of air as he watched Grigson place the now dented can of Kitty Bitties into the flip-top bin; a hiss that was still spluttering from him as Mr Grigson washed his blood splashed spectacles and dried them on Laverne’s Tudor Kings and Queens tea towel.
Wendell averted his eyes from the little man, away from the battered old woman, and onto the box of assorted fruit and veg that he still clung onto, as if the words he needed were engraved on the apples, etched on the oranges.
‘She’ll poison no more pets now,’ Grigson said in a casual, matter of fact tone – a tone that, for all its seeming reasonableness, only enhanced his quiet lunacy.
The old man hobbled over to Wendell. He looked a lot frailer now, as if all the strength had been leeched out of him, deposited into the bin along with the can of cat food. He leaned close to read Wendell’s badge.
‘That true, big fella?’ Grigson peered up into Wendell’s eyes. ‘You happy to chat? Eager for a wee bit of blarney? Because if you are, me and you have a bit of a problem. Or maybe that badge’s just for show, maybe you’re the kinda fella knows when justice has been served, knows when to keep his mouth shut?’
Wendell saw his own dumb face reflected back in Grigson’s glasses as he cursed his ill luck. This is exactly the kind of crap that happens when you fail to avoid the people places. He imagined calling the police – the statements he would have to give, the constant questioning, the endless calls, the court case, the witness stand, the journalists door-stepping him with their microphones, the nosey clients on his route all looking for his version; the talk,talk,talk, talking.
Wendell raised one trembling hand from the grocery box and made a zipping motion across his lips. He even ventured a wink – he’d used one before and found them effective as a form of conversational shorthand.
Mr Grigson smiled, his yellowed dentures glistening with saliva; the inside of his mouth looked as scarlet and sticky as Laverne’s head. ‘Good man!’ he said, slapping Wendell’s back. ‘I best be getting home to feed my little Sally.’
He stopped in mid-turn, his face suddenly a mixture of confusion and suspicion. ‘You haven’t seen my Sally have you? She’s normally back by now.’
Wendell shook his head and made his way back down the hall, fully expecting at any moment to feel the thud of a sauce bottle or the thwack of bean can on the back of his skull. But nothing came and Wendell found himself back outside at his truck, breathing a long, rattling sigh of relief.
He put the grocery box on the passenger seat and gunned the engine. There were no other houses on the road save for Laverne’s and Grigson’s. He would be able to deny he had ever been here. He took off the handbrake and jolted forward just as Grigson appeared at the front door. Their eyes locked. The old man held a finger to his lips and Wendell mirrored the gesture.
He crunched the gears, giving the truck too much juice so that it laboured its way to the end of the cul-de-sac with a disheartening roar. Wendell’s hands slipped around the wheel as he turned the vehicle in a series of excruciatingly slow stages before he finally pointed the truck back the way he had come and toward freedom.
He drove slowly until he passed the old woman’s house. Grigson was gone, but over the thrum of his engine he could still hear him calling for his Sally. The old man was senile, there was no telling what he would say or do. Wendell fretted, but consoled himself that Grigson would most likely be in a pine box before a witness box.
He pressed down hard on the gas, accelerating much too quickly, losing control as he hared around a sharp corner. Wendell slammed on the brakes, his seatbelt almost garrotting him, as Laverne’s unwanted groceries flung themselves across the dash. Wendell sat for a long time contemplating the apples and oranges, the cabbages and carrots, clustered in the sunlight of his windshield.
They looked exactly like one of his beloved paintings. A Still Life. And a still life, he often thought, was still life.
He let its calm beauty soak into him and then drove on with a quiet smile. He was in such a good mood he even managed a mumbled ‘Hello’ to the next customer on his route.