:: Article

A Reason for the Town

By Daniel Bennett.

When I came to the town, what struck me most was the large number of dwarfs. They seemed, really, to be everywhere: haggling in the aisles of food shops, holding hands underneath the coloured plastic awnings of the street market, sipping cans of lager upon the promenade. That such an insignificant coastal town could claim so many dwarfs amongst its citizens struck me as amazing and I struggled to account for it. Some nights, I closed my eyes and imagined a ship running aground, a cruel current, a winter storm. This was, perhaps, wrong. The dwarfs were not the outsiders, after all. I had only recently arrived.

So gripping and unreasonable did their presence seem to me, I mentioned the dwarfs to Martin the first time we met. It was late at night and I had been drinking. Around that time of my life, I did most of my drinking in my room, stealing out to a small parade of shops along the road for bottle or two of wine. I had moved to the town during the summer, leaving the city behind. In my head, my time in the country of my birth had come to an end, but my imagination had failed; categorically, this was one of the most miserable episodes of my life. I had gone out into the corridor to find Martin walking back from the communal toilet, hunched over as he buttoned his fly. Clearly he had been drinking too and this was how we met one another, two brilliant angels of sin. When he saw me he started laughing. Hey, he said. A late night partner.

He looked at me slightly coldly when I mentioned all the dwarfs. What do you mean? he said. The dwarfs, I replied, around the town. Martin, it should be pointed out, really was not a dwarf. Taller than me, and even though, only at nineteen, I was tall. When he shook my hand his palm felt grained and hard as sanded balsa wood. A moustache, which impressed me because it curled around the corners of his mouth. A greyness dusted upon his skin, like he had been working with flour or masonry. A perfect round mole dead and black underneath his right eye. I don’t know what you mean, he said, when I persisted about the dwarfs. I’ve never seen them, they aren’t here.

Over the next few weeks, I had to see his point. The dwarfs really weren’t there. I went walking through the town- out past the quay, where the giant dredging ship disgorged its cargo of captured stones; I hunted through the underpasses and alleyways. In fact, the only dwarf I saw from then on was later, much later. Perhaps it was after I left my room on that house on the corner, with its cracked façade, its bay windows, its bindweed and vast untamed bush of lilacs. This last dwarf was standing alone at a bus stop. He wanted to know the time. He asked the man I was standing next to. I desperately wanted to answer him, but as usual I had no watch. He was listening to Pink Floyd on a stereo, drinking from a can of ginger beer. Part of me wonders if this didn’t take place in the town at all, whether from the very start I brushed all the dwarfs I have ever encountered into the town because it was somehow more convenient.

One night, I was lying on my bed. At that time, whenever I closed my eyes I would see a vast conurbation on the edge of the sea. White curved turrets and black elliptical windows, the perfect mysterious shape of the vesica piscis. An ideal city: captivating and totally impossible. A knock came at the door. It was Martin. He asked me what I was doing. I told him that I’d been reading. Reading, he asked. He peered through the doorway. No TV, he said. You didn’t bring a TV. I don’t own a TV, I corrected. I’ve never owned a TV. Doesn’t the quiet get to you, he said. I wouldn’t be able to stand the quiet. I didn’t want to tell him that the quiet affected me badly, that I had owned a TV but sold it before moving down here, that my life so far had been a procession of things relinquished, mostly without thought. As though, I had been given a box which I had to empty, a task I’d set about with eagerness.

So what are you doing, Martin said again.

His room was much like mine. A small kitchen area, like the galley of a ship. A bed against the far wall. A sofa. On the wall of the kitchen a poster displayed different types of freshwater fish. A rod wrapped snugly in a canvas cover, a tacklebox. Next to the television, a school photograph of a girl with glasses in a plum coloured sweatshirt. The picture was old, perhaps more than ten years old, but I couldn’t say how I knew this. Probably the clue was Martin himself. He poured me a can of beer into a chunky Pyrex glass. He told me that he worked in the grounds of a large hotel in the countryside. He asked me what I was doing in the town; I asked him the same question. Neither of us could give anything like a coherent reply. Probably this was the reason for the television being switched on, to absorb the mass of failure. Martin spent the whole time flicking through the channels, as though searching, improbably for a recognisable face. He came to an advert for a porn channel, a few minutes of images before it dissolved into static. Do you want to watch this, he asked. I told him that I didn’t mind. You like sex, then, he asked. I told him that I did, of course.

Sex? he said. You don’t know anything about sex.

I do know about sex, I said.

What do you think you know?

On the screen a woman naked from the waist up looked over her shoulder and made a number of demands. Her skin had flecks of silver upon it. Martin asked me if I had seen a woman like that, or done the things she’d asked for. I said yes. But not while you’ve been here, he said. How do you know, I asked.

You never leave that room.

During the day, I would often walk around the square. I checked what little money I had. I would call old friends on the public phones. I spent time in a café. It had pictures on the wall by a local artist: boats scenes and seascapes in various shades of vibrant green. The last time I went to the café, all the pictures had been taken down, an incident which I count as the most cruel of all the time I spent there. I adopted a table and chair by the window looking out, even then, for dwarfs. I read from my book, but I was too distracted. I wrote in my notebook, but the life beyond the window seemed always to fill the gaps between the words. Is there anything more grotesque than what you see every day? Is there anything more terrifying than what you will accept, glimpsed from the other end of the scale? Still, there are subtleties along the way, steps and compromises, minor failures compensated with slight unimagined rewards, so that when finally everything comes about, you’re all right.

I want to tell you something about the two sides of Martin. Here was a man who wanted to reach out, who wanted, I think to care. The first incident came towards the end of my stay in the town. It wasn’t healthy, he said, me hiding out in the room, like a criminal. He took me to a pub in town. I had passed this building often. It was the old cinema, redeveloped into a vast chain pub. They served cheap doubles, Sunday roasts, burgers with hot sauce. Martin set us up with beer and whisky chasers and we remained loyal to this gesture for the whole evening. He told me that a man only learns to handle spirits in his thirties, that younger men don’t have the constitution. I was determined to prove him wrong. We drank with the spirit of destruction. We talked about work and money. Probably, Martin offered insights and advice, none of which I can recall. He told me a story, the beginning of which I do remember. There was an old mill, a group of workers arriving in a clapped out old van. High summer and alcohol. An ancient monolith. A disagreement about football. And then… what? Murder, maybe, and a shared vow. Although the pub was packed, there was no music, and all the talk in the world couldn’t create an atmosphere under that distant ceiling. The projector remained at the centre of the building, like an outmoded gun.

A woman had been drinking alone at the booth along from ours. She looked, I’m ashamed to say, like a victim. She sat with her back to the room, rocked forward upon her stool. Her jeans had ridden down, exposing her backside. Her skin had the marbled quality of sausage meat. A group of men were laughing. Slot machine, I heard them say, at first only amongst themselves. Later, one of them walked towards the toilet and paused to mime placing a coin into her jeans. She didn’t look up from her drink. Martin and I didn’t remark upon this, there was no consensus. Although it was my round, he walked up to the bar. I can still see him returning holding two bottle of beer, a tall man in light denim jacket and jeans, a complexion of a worker ghost. Just as he approached the table of men, I smiled at him. I was still smiling as he let one of bottles fly from his hand, and this way announce a new pathway for the evening.

And now, I realise that this doesn’t represent one of two sides to Martin, that even in this violence he was only trying to communicate love. The man who was hit fell beneath the table. I remember the ragged wound above his eyebrow, the relentless blood. Martin and I were forced to leave, and nothing seemed to be easy. Many people had their opinions. They don’t know who she is, Martin told me as we walked back to the house. He was still carrying the other bottle of beer, which testified to his resilience. We were walking quickly under the streetlights, the amber hallucination. I’m not sure we were even heading home. I asked him who she was, and he was quiet for -oh- two weeks on anything that was relevant. I’ve put my mother in the ground, he said, at one stage. I left my little girl behind.

The other time I wanted to tell you about was earlier than this. It seemed to me that Martin regretted the way we had met, as though he’d embarrassed himself in some way. Later, I would understand him to be moral, pained, unique, really, in his capacity to communicate only through magnificent actions, which I came to regard as assuming a kind of poetry. I would drift away from that house one Sunday afternoon and although I never said goodbye, I would often think of the way we had regarded one another, like reflections in an insane mirror. When the knock came at my door, I’d been sleeping. It was past two o’clock in the morning. Martin was wearing long seal-black waders and carried a spade and an orange plastic bucket. What are you doing, he asked, as though mine was the behaviour that needed explaining.

He wanted me to come out with him to dig for bait. Night time at low tide was the best time for ragworms and black lugworms. If you’ve never done it, he said, then you need to try. When I pointed I didn’t have waders, he told me to roll up the bottoms of my jeans. It’s not a cold night, he said. The moon was a silver disc when we stepped outside of the house, the passing traffic and all the stars. We headed out to the quay, walking down slick bearded steps cut into the seawall.

Now, that evening is distinct for me, as though someone had cut out this whole episode and stuck it against white paper. The slick surface of the mud, grey under the light of the moon. The dim silver making the whole expanse alien and petrified. The mud between my toes, cold then warm, the feel of it throbbing at the back of my skull. The suck and the cough as I pulled my feet along. Martin had brought a half flask of rum. He stopped in his tracks, breathed in, drank from the bottle, a rhythmical, pleasing movement that I could imagine him repeating again and again until the end of time. I told you, he said. It’s worth it. Can you smell that air? He told me that this was the largest open space in the town, that it was the only place to find perspective. He told me that, sometimes, he resented the tide for covering this ground, as though this land was his birthright. He passed the rum over to me, asked me to join him. Most of the nearby yachts had capsized upon their keels, but I remember a blue and white boat hovering over the plain, its one long fin lodged precisely into the sands. The breeze shrieked through the rigging. It was a singular, captivating sound. Martin showed me how to judge the best places for bait, the curled hollow casts of worms, like coils of grey shit. The cars from the quayside road searched us out, but by the time the drivers had seen us probably we were gone. The top of the mud was grey, but the deepest layer was black and ancient, gritted with disintegrated shells. Martin pulled out worms from their tracks. I tell you, he said, if I ever needed to say why I live here…

Back at the house, Martin stowed the bucket down the side of the house. Under the lights, I could see the worms coiling sadly against unyielding plastic. We walked carefully up the stairs. Sounds echoed from the flats, the muted communication of other lives. I washed my feet off in the shower. My skin was pale under the bright lights of the bathroom, and as the mud spilled under the jet of the shower, drifting away in silty trickles, I felt like something long lost finally disinterred. A relic, in fact, worthless except that I had been pulled from the ground. Martin called across the hallway, asking me to join him for a drink. The sound of his voice was distant and tragic. I realised that I was home.

That night we drank whiskey, cheap Canadian whiskey the colour and taste of new copper coins. Martin was animated. He talked about his job in the grounds of the hotel, poisoning rabbits and incinerating trash. He talked about fishing. He talked about a dream he’d once had about the sea and all its tributaries raised like a vivid intricate jelly above the earth. The dream had been so vivid that he’d even been able to see the fish swimming against the membrane of the water. What does that mean, he demanded from me, as though I had helped construct this singular vision, as though I could be blamed. I told him that I was sorry, I couldn’t answer. I got shitfaced that night and collapsed on the kitchen floor.

A dwarf throwing beer cans into the surf. An ideal city upon the coast. A man who bled like the tide. Footsteps quickly filled by sludge. Ragworms wriggling against plastic. A boat that levitated over the vanished sea. Only pieces of the town remain for me now, and if they sometimes seem close to the surface they usually slip away. That night, the night we headed out to dig bait, I woke up to find Martin standing over me. His face was very close to mine. I could smell the whiskey upon his breath, the sweet effusive taint. There was a moment, eloquent, terrifying, but it passed. He smelled of dust most of all, the sad white dust that had been absorbed into the texture of his skin. He clapped his hand to my shoulder. I told him that I was sorry, but he said it was OK. He said, you were crying out in your sleep, I had to come to you. I thought that you’d wake people, I thought that someone might come.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Bennett was born in 1974 and studied at the University of East Anglia and the University of Colorado. His stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including London Noir. His first novel All the Dogs was published last year by Tindal Street Press. You can read his work of online fiction, Satellite Town here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 8th, 2009.