The Concise Life of Henry Stallworthy


by Stephen McQuiggan


Five minutes after vomiting Henry was back at the bar with a pint in front of him. This was how life slipped you by, but he was so bored he hardly noticed anymore. He was on auto pilot, asleep at the wheel, and heading for a crash that he welcomed in his heart. His death had become a fetish to him. Anything was better than merging with the faceless masses.

Only the constant drill of pain enriched his life and made him real. Sorrow and misery were the only highlights of his monochrome existence, the only bits worth taping. If life were a movie, he thought, you would watch it on fast forward yawning between the action scenes. Death was preferable.

But the bored lived a long time, each minute stretched to breaking point. The bored might well be immortal if they didn’t kill themselves to liven things up. He was so weary of struggling through the clotted passage of his being. There had to be something more and he planned to drink until he found it.

He sipped his pint, feeling his stomach lurch as a vanguard of bile charged up his throat. ‘I wish you could just live the good bits,’ he said to the pale reflection in the mirror behind the optics. ‘The meaningful bits.’ Then he hurried to the toilets once more.

But when he opened the door, instead of urinals and an overpowering stench of bleach, he found himself in a small cramped office. The contents of his stomach retreated in surprise. A clerk, skinny as a bar of cheap rock, was scribbling away behind a desk; Henry could hear the tut of his pen over the clone and drone of the photocopier. By the clerk’s elbow, acting as a paperweight, was a picture of a woman without a face.

Henry was instantly wary of him, for he appeared more insect than human. He was afraid the clerk might touch him and that his touch would be the cold one he feared in the dead of night; the reason he couldn’t sleep if all his limbs weren’t covered. The clerk looked up as if he sensed he was being stared at. He looked tiny behind the black carapace of his desk.

‘Mr Stallworthy?’

Henry started. ‘How do you-’

‘I won’t be a moment. I just need your signature for our records.’

‘Signature? I don’t understand.’

‘Don’t worry, it’s really just a formality. Your wish has already been authorised by the Board.’

‘My wish? Am I dead?’

The clerk laughed. ‘No sir, you are very much alive. How does it feel to be alive?’

Henry merely gawped in reply.

‘If you would just sign here,’ the clerk tapped a piece of paper with his pen. ‘And here.’

Henry scrawled his name feeling the clerk frown behind him at every incompetent stroke. He noticed that the little man reeked of Brylcreem even though he was completely bald.

‘So what have I signed up for?’

‘Why, the best bits Mr Stallworthy. All the meaningful moments of your life with no filler in between. The meat without the bread.’

‘You’re kidding me, right?’

The clerk gestured toward the door. ‘If you wouldn’t mind sir, there are others waiting.’

Henry left mumbling an apology. He found himself in a dark, narrow corridor whose far end was dimly lit by a tiny red door that was barely more than a slit. The shadows clung to it like matted hair. He walked slowly toward it, feeling his fear shiver around him. It looked like a cave where childhood monsters might lurk.

It was a squeeze to get through the tiny opening even though the sides were lubricated with some form of mucus. It hurt as he pushed, and he cried as he slipped through to the other side and found himself in a hospital room. He had no idea what was going on. He felt like a fly on a TV screen, surrounded by sights and sounds that made no sense.

A woman was writhing on the bed, screaming obscenities, grasping onto a man’s hand so tightly she had drawn blood. The man looked trapped between illness and embarrassment. Underneath his pallid mask Henry recognised him; it was his father. And the swearing, sweating mess that clung to him was his mother.

‘None too clever this birthing process,’ said the clerk from behind him. ‘Throws everything out of whack.’

‘What is this?’

‘It’s your birthday.’

‘My-’

But the clerk was gone. A baby yelled. He saw the child emerge, surfing on the tidal wave that gushed from his mother, a six pound pot roast erupting through the open window his mother spread from one world to the next. The doctor opened a window too; the noxious fumes accompanying its arrival were overwhelming.

They make you pay for such indiscretions. He remembered vividly the birth canal, as fetid and clotted as the one by Romannon Street; the terror as he hit vegetation. His first birthday, no cake, no candles, just blood and guts and tears; a prototype of all that would follow.

He looked at his small crying self. Such an ugly baby. He was just a short slap away from being thrown to an indifferent world, full of little miracles, bored to death of them. Why had they bothered? He had been an Elastoplast baby, used to cover the festering wound of his parent’s marriage. He had failed miserably, something his mother pointed out to him on a daily basis.

The doctor held the dripping child aloft, a sacrificial lamb offered to a hungry God. The sight of blood on his mother’s thighs, on his tiny arms and protruding belly made him cry. He had been sensitive from a tender age.

‘It’s a ..’ The doctor paused for the longest time and Henry felt the shame of the changing room return, ‘…a boy!’

The baby reached for the umbilical, tried to crawl back, intuitively aware he did not belong here, but the lifeline was cut and he was left stranded. They swaddled him in a blanket and presented him, a bouquet of pink steaming meat, to his mother. She clucked, turned her eyes in, mouthed nonsense words. It was then that Henry had had his first coherent thought: My mother is an idiot.

Enough. He squeezed back out the door, into the dim corridor, and found Sheba waiting for him. He had forgotten all about her and her gentle brown eyes. She’d been the only one who had ever been pleased to see him; how could he have forgotten her? She barked a greeting and Henry felt something inside him slip. His dad had always told him not to stick his toe into the bath plughole, told him it would suck him down with the water. Now here he was, on the other side, for Sheba had been dead for twenty years.

He had buried her at the bottom of the garden and he had talked to her every day. Of course, he had pretending to be weeding just in case his mother was watching him. You come for me when it’s my time Sheba, he always told the little mound of earth before he left, and we’ll be together forever.

‘Are you my guide girl?’

Wagging her stumpy tail she bounded into a pillar of bright light barking for him to follow. He ran after her, crying ‘Stop!’, for the last time she had bounded into the light it had been the headlamps of a Vauxhall Viva and her little body had crunched beneath the wheels.

He closed his eyes as he raced into the heart of the pillar. He felt a shower of insects crawl over his face, their hard pellet bodies scraping his skin. Their countless legs, barbed with coarse hair and dipped in dung, tickled his lips, made him gag. He felt the jackboots of a superior race march over his flesh and he leapt from the light rubbing frantically at his skin in disgust.

He landed in a church filled with a few mumbling mourners.

‘Bad turn out,’ said the clerk behind him. ‘I asked around but no one had anything really good to say about you, although the Reverend said you were held in high esteem and praised your whistling ability.’

‘Where am I?’

The clerk pointed to a coffin underneath the pulpit. ‘Why, it’s your going away party Mr Stallworthy.’

No one was crying; that was disappointing. The small band of the mercy circus that had huddled under the Lord’s cold roof were dry eyed and catatonically bored. In place of sobbing there was only a slight rustling and the occasional clink of a boiled sweet against false teeth.

Where are all my friends? He didn’t recognise half the people here; they were far too old to be acquaintances. Who will lift my coffin then? No one here seemed fit enough. They seemed to be frozen in the act of queuing, not mourning. They were using his funeral as a dress rehearsal for their own. He turned to ask the clerk but he was nowhere to be seen.

In a small room to one side he saw a table filled with ham sandwiches and the realisation that he was overseeing his own death suddenly hit home. Ham sandwiches were the broken mirror, the number thirteen, the grim reaper of the food world; there could be no send off without them.

The lettuce and tomato were all show and the egg and onion would just repeat on you all day; you certainly didn’t want to be trumping in a small room like that. No, the ham sandwich was the morbid snack of choice; crusts cut off, shaved like a marine, ready to kick the filling out of the nancy boy cucumbers.

Henry watched as an old woman helped herself, the ham protruding from the bread like a tongue between dead lips, and washed it down with the obligatory strong tea. How can anyone eat when the air is filled with the nauseating stench of roses? And why in the hour of my own funeral can I only think of food; was there nothing more profound than Spam?

He watched his mother talking to the Reverend Campbell, laughing at some weak joke he’d made. She’d always referred to him as a sanctimonious old hypocrite, yet here she was flirting with him over her son’s body. She was wearing an awful green dress; in the midst of death we are in embarrassment.

Henry walked up the aisle and looked at himself in the coffin. He looked young, he thought, too young. With his mouth glued shut, pursed like a pencil sharpener, and his suit and tie on he looked like a prefect. He looked like the kind of boy he would’ve picked on at school. In death all things looked artificial, man made; but Henry looked more real than he had ever felt. As a final insult they’d combed his hair wrong too.

He could not bear to look at the dummy in the casket any longer; leave it to God, he thought striding back down the aisle, leave it to the great ventriloquist in the sky. He was sweating now, despite the chill air, and his sweat reeked of attar. He stopped a moment by the small garden of wreaths sprouting by the door. One spelt out SON in shiny plastic flowers; then, at last, someone cried.

Wiping the tears from his eyes Henry pushed through the heavy church door and found himself back in the clerk’s cramped office. Stepping over the box-files that lay on the floor like homogenous headstones, he approached the odd little man who was still scribbling away.

‘What am I doing back here?’

Looking up, the clerk spread his bony hands in sympathy. ‘You’ve had your quota Mr Stallworthy.’

‘Two days? That’s it?’

‘I think you’ll find it’s three.’

‘I’ve had birth and death. I think you’ll find that’s only two.’

‘And you have today Sir. Making three. The magic number.’

‘What’s today?’

‘Today’s the day you made your wish.’

As Henry stared at him he could feel his sickness return; a tendril of bile snaked up his throat.

‘Who are you?’

The clerk smiled. ‘Just someone who made a wish. Someone like you.’ He gestured toward the door. ‘If you don’t mind Sir, there are others waiting.’

Henry left, barely making it out before emptying the contents of his stomach over his shoes.

Five minutes after vomiting Henry was back at the bar with a pint in front of him. This was how life slipped you by, but he was so bored he hardly noticed anymore.