Extract from The Gwailo (1990)
This is an extract from Chapter 23 of my second novel. The man whose head we are inside is an Englishman and a very bad man indeed: a killer and child-kidnapper called Maurice. At this stage of the plot he is holed up in an empty office in Hong Kong, where he has been holding a two-year-old boy hostage, together with a Thai woman, hired as child-minder and unwitting accomplice. Maurice is expecting to receive a large ransom from the boy’s grandfather, a wealthy American tycoon. But before he is paid, the Thai nanny – whom he has already tried to rape – waits behind the door for Maurice’s return from an excursion, and stabs him with a kitchen knife. Maurice fights back, strangling the girl to death, but he is already gravely wounded himself. The child hostage, whose crying he hears towards the end of the extract, is shut inside a connecting room.
What I tried to do here was to recreate the wandering thoughts of the dying man, his gradual, drip-drip detachment from reality, and reversion to memories of childhood.
After a while, the gouting of blood slowed to a sticky ooze. Clotting, he supposed.
He had returned, as if pressed by some primitive urge, to the position beside the telephone that he had previously got into the habit of occupying in the bare, unfurnished property. It took a long time to manoeuvre himself into place, his legs splayed and his back – the uninjured right side – propped against the wall. Looking across the room he could see much red on the carpet, the scattered necklace-beads and the snail-trail of gore whose smears mapped the route he had taken across the carpet.
You dirty! Filthy! Dragging all that mud in on your shoes that way when your poor Ma’s been on her hands and knees cleaning all morning.
One way or another Ma had spent most of her time on her knees. He remembered the tattered rubber kneeler she used to drag around the house to save her kneecaps. The rubber was so perished that unless you picked it up in two hands, bits would split off it. When she told him to “bring that old kneemat here to me”, he had to force himself to touch it. It was shiny and yet rough to the touch, like a reptile’s skin. It was also so dark with grime that you couldn’t imagine what colour it had been when new. Of course he did it. In her own house Ma was an empress. It was only when he was outside of the two-up-and-two-down palace that Maurice got into the habit of raising Cain.
He lifted his buttocks to find more comfort, and at once pain shot through him. Otherwise there was a heaviness, a throbbing in the lumbar area which he knew would be developing into real pain pretty soon.
Ma’s undeviating routine when Maurice cut himself relied heavily on an antiseptic called TCP, which in her eyes was imbued with mystical healing properties. So when he ran in after falling off his bike, or out of a tree, he would be sent limping up to the bathroom and told to bring down the TCP. This would be unscrewed with a kind of awed piety, otherwise reserved for Lourdes water, and sloshed onto a wad of cotton before being used to scour his cuts and grazes with fierce and stinging abandon. He yelled and struggled as the astringent liquid seared his broken flesh, but Ma was unrelenting.
It only stings because it heals, Maurice, and it cannot heal unless it stings. What’s the use of medicine if it mollycoddles? Why do you think the Magnesia tastes so nasty? Because it’s good for you, that’s why.
This was her other elixir, Milk of Magnesia. It took its place proudly beside the TCP in the enamel bathroom cabinet and, during the period of Maurice’s childhood when he came running in to her bawling out his pain, the family must have got through TCP and Magnesia the way many alcoholics get through gin.
The Magnesia would be for internal pain and presumably, if Ma were here now, having splashed him with TCP, she would at once begin pouring the cold chalky spoonfuls of Magnesia down his throat every ten minutes. He shuddered, and this movement created a fresh rending sensation in his wound. There was another warm trickle of blood into his already sopping shirt and he felt, too, a slight intensification of the throbbing deep within his back. It was in fact only a small increment, like a shift up to a marginally higher gear, but now it was happening every few minutes.
Don’t feel so sorry for yourself. D’you think you’re the only person in the world to suffer? It’s what we’re here on this earth for, so don’t you be complaining.
He was breathing faster now and for the first time noticed a moist, bubbling sensation in his lungs, reminding him of a narghile pipe. His brain seemed light and evanescent, in contrast to the leaden balloon slowly inflating itself around his guts. In front of his eyes floated strands of red, yellow and grey gauze. He shook his head and tried to focus on something. There, at the far end of the room, by the door, sprawled his attacker’s body, a shapeless insubstantial form to him now. He tried to think. Who was it, anyway? It was a woman, yes, he remembered that much. She had stuck the knife into him, deep into him. That was certain. But what had she wanted? He frowned, trying to concentrate. The bitch must have been some kind of psycho; just came at him for no reason with the knife. Suppose she got it from the kitchen. Yes, from the kitchen. Like he did once. He’d taken one of Ma’s knives and used it to cut a piece of string to length. She had fallen into one of her rages when she saw him at it.
Boy, you never, never, never touch those knives again, you hear me? If I see you with one I shall use it to cut a piece off you. Cut a piece off you, I shall.
She didn’t specify, but even at six he had some idea which particular piece she was planning to sever.
The bitch. Not Ma. Oh, no. This bitch. She tried to kill him and he didn’t know why. Well, there was something. He had been bad and that was why, but somehow he couldn’t assemble the various parts of his badness. What was it? Did he steal? Did he lie? Did he blaspheme? Did he kill?
Thou shalt not kill, and as far as I’m concerned they should all be strung up.
Ma was a convinced capital punisher, and had brought Maurice up to believe in the rope as passionately as she did.
Yes, and when they die, they roast in Hell for all eternity. All eternity, Maurice, think of that, won’t you? Because with the company you keep, that’s where you’re headed for.
It was during Maurice’s first bit of adult bird that they’d hung Hanratty. It was in another prison hundreds of miles away, but at the hour of the hanging Maurice’s wing had suddenly and eerily fallen silent. The hush was intensely painful, as if every prisoner in every cell were Hanratty himself, standing on the trapdoor with the iron eye through which the loop passed under his ear, the bag over his head, holding his breath, waiting for the drop.
So it had been: a chill silence as they counted down the chimes of the prison clock. And exactly on the stroke of the last there had been a single harsh yell. It echoed down from the fours, the top landing on the wing. It could be heard by every prisoner there.
‘Swing, you bastard, swing! You got exactly what was coming.
The yell was followed by a hammering of tin plates and spoons and chamber pots against walls, doors, and windows, and an uproar of screams, shouts, hoots and curses was kept up for twenty minutes. He knew what it meant, they all did. ‘Welcome, Hanratty,’ the cacophony was saying. ‘Welcome to Hell.’
If Maurice was a murderer, a multiple murderer, then he should die too. Hanratty killed a man; Maurice had killed – what? A man, two women, yes. And more. He killed a – an it. Yes. Maurice should hang. He should dangle and roast in Hell.
Maurice had known what he was doing. There was right, and there was wrong, and he was wrong. He had made a pact with himself at fifteen to that effect. Wrong was what he was, and there was nothing the Christian Brothers or the probation service or the prison padre or the shrink or Ma or any other bugger could do about it. He was just wrong. He had chosen this of his own free will.
The phone was down there, beside him on the floor. If he made a supreme effort he could pick it up and dial zero. They would get help, a hospital, clean sheets, sexy nurses. His lips twisted into a smile. He wouldn’t do it though. Snafu: the situation was normal; he was all fucked up.
His position against the wall was getting increasingly painful, his back was no longer merely throbbing but pounding, his legs were numb and now his head too felt unbearable in its weight. He knew he must rest for his brain to go on working. He therefore edged his body sideways, using his arms to buttress his trunk and prevent a sudden lurch to the floor. Grunting with effort, trying to move away from the place where he knew the pain would suddenly scythe into him, he lowered himself. Now he was leaning entirely on his right elbow, but to get down further he would have to twist, and to do this would be unimaginable torture. He stopped like that, panting. He didn’t know for how long. His brain was swelling and contracting. When, finally, he toppled off the stanchion of his arm and dropped down to an untidy, twisted-round position, his nose was first to hit the carpet, followed by his forehead, chin and mouth. He lay still, no longer capable of feeling the pain, which would otherwise have blitzed nerve-ends throughout his midriff. He heard nothing. Not the beginnings of the whimper that threaded under the door from next room, nor the shrill mouse-squeaks of the telephone on the floor beside his left ear.
© Robin Blake 1990
The Gwailo is out of print. It was published by Viking Books and Penguin.