Johnny in a puddle
26 March 2012
“Excuse me, does this belong to anybody?”
Most of the midday shoppers ignored the man who stood in the square amidst the market stalls. He straddled a gruesome puddle, shielding a bloated condom that languished in its depths from feet that drudged through their day.
“Does this belong to anybody?” he reiterated, terror beginning to wend its way through his agerasian features as he struggled with the idea that such a precious cargo could simply have been abandoned.
“Does what belong to anybody mate?” asked one of the stall holders, the smirk he reserved for local crazies turning one corner of his grizzled mouth. “What you found?”
“A condom, lying in this puddle,” he replied hurriedly. “It appears to be full.”
“Are you asking if anyone owns a used fucking johnny mate?” blurted the stall holder.
“Indeed I am,” said the man. “Well, I assume it’s been used, unless it’s filled with shampoo or some such, which I feel is unlikely. And my name is Bernard, not ‘mate’,” he added, charitably.
The stall holder coughed out a laugh. “That’s gotta be the best I’ve heard yet mate,” he chuckled. “Why the fuck would anyone want to lay claim to a used johnny?”
“Why, more to the point, would someone leave it here?” Bernard responded. “They can’t have just tossed it aside.”
“Ha, no, I don’t think there was any tossing there mate,” laughed the stall holder. “Not unless he’s a right sad weirdo bastard. Actually,” he added, “you sure it ain’t yours?”
“Of course not!” thundered Bernard. “Do I look so irresponsible?”
A few shoppers had stopped to listen, and at this they took in Bernard’s appearance in detail. If they’d have conferred they would have agreed that, no, he didn’t look irresponsible, whatever that might look like. But neither did he look like someone who would be concerned with the ownership of a used condom.
His hair and whiskers were well groomed, his three piece tweed suit and knee length raincoat in good condition, and the briefcase and umbrella he carried appeared expensive. The overall effect was of a well bred and comfortable older gentleman.
The stall holder wasn’t a man who reacted well to being shouted at, even though – or perhaps because – he had significant experience of being addressed in just that manner.
“No, you don’t look irresponsible mate,” he replied in kind. “But you do seem fucking crazy. You’re talking about a used fucking johnny mate, it don’t belong to no-one you pratt.”
“Is there somebody else I could talk to?” sighed Bernard, turning from the stall holder to address his small but growing audience. “If things continue in this manner we’ll never get to the bottom of this, and I must be at an appointment in -” he checked his watch – “an hour and twenty six minutes.”
Some of the shoppers giggled and tittered to themselves and carried on their way, but others sensed an amusing diversion in the offing and decided to stay for the duration. They glanced amongst themselves to determine whether or not anyone was prepared to step up to the mark, and were unsurprised to find everybody as reticent as themselves.
The stall holder, ignored, returned to selling bad produce at worse prices, muttering his frustration with life to the only person who would listen. It wouldn’t be long before he found himself roundly ignored and avoided on the street, and his children stopped expecting him to call.
Finding no reply to his entreaty from those in his immediate presence, Bernard, retaining his position astride the dirty pool of water, looked around for someone who might be more amenable. Yet nobody stood out from the crowd; they were all as to be expected.
“Excuse me!” he roared, hoping to reach out beyond his vantage point. “Does anybody claim ownership of this soiled prophylactic?”
All around, heads turned. The question on almost everyone’s lips was: a profee- what? But, in the absence of an obvious physical altercation, fire or free gift, they scuttled back to the safety of their day.
Bernard was becoming visibly agitated by now. He didn’t sweat, nor did he turn red. His clothing did not begin to look dishevelled, nor his posture crumple. His eyes didn’t flash, nor his nostrils flare. But the air about him crackled, distorting his image in an almost unremarkable yet definite way.
A man in a neat but worn brown knee length coat sauntered up to Bernard, hands in waist pockets.
“I’m the manager of the market,” he said with practiced authority. “Are you wishing to make a complaint?”
Bernard looked the manager up and down quickly. “No, not at all, I have no complaint to make. If I were to complain I’m not sure to whom I would do so, but I am sure it would be a higher authority than yourself, relating as it would to the lack of importance attached to this item, and its ownership, by members of the immediate public.”
The steadily growing crowd had a feeling it may have been insulted, but as some of them had been unable to keep up with the sentence, others were unsure, and yet more didn’t want to interrupt the flow of whatever was happening, nobody said a word.
“What item is that?” asked the manager mischievously, one eyebrow raised. He batted away the arm of the lately involved stall holder, who had sidled up beside him and was about to point out the condom.
“The used prophylactic in this puddle,” replied Bernard calmly. “It, along with the precious cargo I believe it holds, has been forgotten by its owner and we have a duty to do all we can to ensure its safe return. Can I assume that, given your position, you have dealt with cases of lost property before?”
The manager paused, confused as he was by the incongruity of the man’s demeanour and the words that reached his ears. He could not be sure if Bernard was mad, if he was mocking him and the authority he knew he did not really possess, or if this was some form of that performance art he had heard so little about. In the end he decided it was not something he was prepared to deal with.
“If you’d like to wait here – sir, “ he added, for safety’s sake, “I’ll be back presently.” He turned on his heel, stumbled, and walked off.
The crowd refocused its attention on Bernard, waiting for his next move. He kept his position yet said nothing more, convinced as he was by now that it wasn’t worth the breath. Checking his watch, he satisfied himself that attendance at his appointment wasn’t immediately threatened – well ahead of time as he always was, just in case this sort of situation arose – and settled in to waiting.
Checking his watch for the fifth time since the manager had departed, Bernard raised his head in unison with those around him as a cry erupted from the other end of the market. It was followed by a crash and loudly spluttered expletives. Fear jumped across Bernard’s face, but his audience reacted with barely muted glee. What a day! First this crazy gent and now… It didn’t matter what else, it was enough that it was.
Those with an eye for Bernard saw him look around frantically, searching the surrounding area, his feet still clamped to the spot. Evidently not locating what he sought, he began to alternate his gaze, now looking down to the condom in the puddle, now up in the direction of the commotion that almost everyone else was intent on.
As a wooden framed sofa rose above the tops of the market stalls, curved an arc through the air, and came back down ten or twenty metres from where it issued with a fabulous smash, some actually heard themselves gasp. The flight of the sofa was followed by a cacophony of objects shooting up into the air in all directions. Pots and pans, hats and gloves, mops and buckets, couplet after clichéd couplet of objects tested gravity before returning to earth, defeated. They bounced off heads and awnings, some finding themselves checked in their progress, hooked over lamp posts or wrapped around signs.
The market was now full of people with their faces turned upwards as they sought to avoid the path of wares temporarily freed from their stalls. Bernard, however, stared straight ahead, waiting for whatever was causing such wanton untidiness to reveal itself. The small crowd around him had also turned their gaze to where a path was being forged between the market stalls. The feet of some even caught up with the brains they were connected to, moving the bodies above them out of the way of what was surely some sort of giant animal on the rampage.
Bernard took up a defensive stance, resolution and determination flitting about him. The onlookers watched as his umbrella and briefcase became a sword and shield, his clothing a suit of armour, and his head a burnished medieval helmet. Yet once they had blinked and shook their minds, he appeared once again as the same dapper older gentleman.
Without knowing why but with unassailable intention, ten of them, men and women of various ages and abilities, arranged themselves behind him so he was flanked on either side. They dropped what they were carrying, clenched their fists and tensed their muscles, ready.
The first Bernard saw of his opponent was a blur behind the two nearest stalls, which quickly left the ground and headed off in opposite directions, their flight distracting his unwitting compatriots. When they brought their eyes back to dead ahead, the cause of the ruckus stared back at them.
She was, they estimated, in her late sixties, an archetypal grandmother of five feet one inch. Beige raincoat, a cake-like hat resting firmly on her head, handbag lopped over her forearm, and very sensible shoes. She showed no signs of the exertion that must have accompanied her spectacular ingress.
“Hello Bernard,” she chirruped, smiling the smile of compounded motherhood. “You don’t learn, do you? If it weren’t for you lot, I’d never find half of them.” She grinned hungrily down at the puddle between Bernard’s feet.
Bernard retained his steely composure as an ounce of self reproach skated through his eyes. “Effie,” he nodded. “You may be right, but if we didn’t look out for them, there’s no knowing what might happen.”
“Ooh, yes,” replied Effie with a smile and a wonder that shone through her eyes. “I never get bored with considering the possibilities. This world could be so much more interesting, if you boys weren’t such a bunch of fuddy duddies! But let’s not go through that again, we’ll just confuse this lot and they haven’t got the strength for it.”
Bernard grunted, hardening his posture. His posse did the same. At the centre of their minds a small voice whispered, “erm, excuse me, but I have a feeling I face a distinct possibility of physical harm, and, whilst there may be situations in which I would choose such a path, I don’t believe my consent was sought in this instance,” more or less articulately as their vocabulary dictated. It was, however, consummately muffled by various hormones and instinctive urges which declared with satisfaction, “bring it on”.
Effie’s twinkling eyes explored the situation for a moment, then she began to trace a wide circle around her adversaries with small, rapid steps. As she did so she passed a circumference of onlookers, all of whom would have described themselves as roundly baffled, many later consulting a dictionary and agreeing that, yes, they had chosen correctly. Their sense of confusion was heightened by the fact that as she approached them they shrank back. They weren’t afraid, or buffeted by some sort of invisible force – their bodies simply took themselves away from her, just in case.
As she performed her funny little march, Effie’s speed increased. The clothing of the crowd flapped in her breeze, and the slighter members felt unsteady on their feet. Round she went, her pace now well above anything one would expect of a lady of her years, but still she displayed no evidence of effort. Those who were able to make out her face noted on it a congenial smile and a pair of determined eyes that sparkled as she sped by.
Bernard stood his ground fiercely, but his tiny army showed signs of instability. They were clearly having to work to stay in position, teetering and tottering as if the ground beneath them rocked. Whilst their bodies were no longer under their control, their faces expressed the confusion that overwhelmed their usually lethargic minds. As one of them fell, the other nine forced their eyes in his direction, the fear within them reaching out to pick him up.
When Effie passed the point at which she became a beige blur, the crowd found itself rooted to the spot. They swayed there, buffeted by Effie’s wind, but not one of them could will a blink or a word.
She shot past them now, emitting a low hum that filled their ears. Some of them thought they could heard her singing softly to herself, but on reflection placed the voice inside their head, the echo of a wrinkled, smiling face leaning over a crib. The onlookers began to sob as they were overwhelmed by feelings they couldn’t remember having but found they knew intimately. Lumps rose in throats as an expansive fear grasped their insides. Vertigo flooded their nerve endings and they did all they could to wrench their heads downwards to check if the world was still beneath their feet.
When a silence billowed out from the centre of the market in a shockless wave, they came back to themselves and the overwhelming shame of adulthood. Some bawled, others fainted. Yet more looked for an excuse to do violence to someone, anyone, just to make it stop.
Once they had located a modicum of composure, they saw before them a motionless vortex, a frozen tornado that rose to puncture the greying clouds. Their clothes no longer billowed and bounced, their hair lay limply in its usual places. Despite the mess scattered around them as a result of Effie’s entrance, the market had never seemed so peaceful, silent as its denizens were, save for the odd hiccup and snotty nose.
A gentle cawing drew eyes upwards to a crow gliding towards the twisted tower. Breaths were held as it drifted closer, minds ran to and fro in excitement. But at the moment the bird was about to pierce the wall of iridescence, they saw it flying in the opposite direction, back over their heads. They did not see it bank or turn, neither did it execute a freestyle swimmer’s forward roll. It did not blip out of sight and reappear as if a piece of software had been rewritten mid-run. It was simply no longer moving in the direction it had been.
An understated teenager – halted by events in her progress from college to cafe, where she would later pore futilely over the Times cryptic crossword with her lecturer – boldly sidled up to the shimmering shaft. She reached out a hand, index finger extended, to touch its glossy surface, and found herself facing a myriad of gawping faces. She turned around slowly and proceeded to wonder with open mouth and watery eyes how she could have missed the petrified whirlwind inches from her face.
The crowd discerned – although they didn’t realise it – a slight rumble, followed by a whoosh and a number of muted cries of surprise, from within the airy edifice. Those that looked up saw nothing at first, then some dark specks flomped through the clouds. As they grew, the specks took on the form of people, and those that had spotted them began shouting and pointing so that more looked upwards. Nobody, however, moved. Even as it became conspicuously clear that Bernard’s small group of supporters was hurtling towards them they stayed where they were, hopeful, perhaps, for a glimpse of a face in the act of plummeting.
But just before they reached the crowd, the fallers saw the soft landing they had hoped for part, leaving only pavement to greet them. Those that were still aware of their predicament – several had drifted off into one memory or another, tea with an aunt or a particularly gratifying sexual encounter, as their character and experience dictated – braced themselves for impact. Only one remembered that this was a bad idea, and tried very hard to relax.
All were quite surprised when their next intuition was of lying on the ground, unharmed, considering shoes. A hush gasped through the crowd. As one, even those on the ground, they looked back at the uncanny column.
Inside, Effie stood facing Bernard. “I don’t know why you try using them,” she twittered. “You know how easily I can puppet their funny little bodies.”
“Naive optimism, Effie,” replied Bernard. “I live with the hope that your authority will one day be a forgotten anomaly, a blip in the history of the universe. Your power will wane Effie, and when it does…”
“Oh, can it Bernard,” she snapped. “You know that’s a load of crap. As long as we’re the ones pushing people out into the world, we’ll be in charge. No matter how far those bloody feminists go!”
“You and your ‘sisters’ are so greedy and selfish you can’t even see what they’re trying to achieve, can you?” scorned Bernard. “They’re forging a role for themselves as makers of the world, not controllers of it. They recognise that we’re all in this together, that we need to cooper…”
“Bollocks Bernard!” screamed Effie. “Complete and utter bollocks! You wouldn’t be saying that if it was you lot with the power – you never have done. We realised the truth, grabbed it by the short and curlies, and now you’re running shit scared. I know what you are, so don’t give me any of your crap.”
Now they were away from the crowd, Effie and Bernard allowed their anger and strength to show. Their faces reddened, their chests rose and fell, and each grew by at least a couple of inches in all directions. At Effie’s last curse, Bernard had opened his mouth to reply, but acknowledged the futility of it and instead fell to glowering at her.
The fact was, he knew he was outmatched. He had faced Effie twice before, and on both occasions the altercation had added at least a hundred years to him. He had hoped that this time a younger, less experienced adversary would come his way, or – stupidly, he knew – none at all. But here he was. He prepared himself.
“I know what you’re thinking Bernard,” squinted Effie with a falsetoothy grin. “I’m afraid it’s not going to be that simple this time.”
“What do you mean, simple?” he cried. “You outdid me both times – and look at me, I’m an old man!”
“Yes, but I also allowed you to you walk away,” she gritted out. “Now I’ve had enough of you. In any case, I’ve got a corn that ain’t half giving me some gip, and my waters are playing up. You picked the wrong day Bernard.”
“But, I didn’t pick anything! I was just on my way to a meeting and…” Bernard trailed off as he heard himself whining, his true age overpowering his better judgement. He knew that even though he hadn’t been on the lookout today, it had been his choice to enter the war in the first place. Everything had been laid out for him clearly and he’d made his decision. He just never thought his end would come at the hands of a little old lady. His underestimation mocked him with a flourish.
Waking from his hesitation, he found Effie’s wisened face an inch from his own. She filled his world. He barely had time to reflect on their comparative heights before he found himself pinned to the glimmering gloss, arms and legs splayed, eyes shut open, his mind trapped in the wonder of how it was going to end.
Keeping her eyes on Bernard, Effie waddled over to the puddle, drinking in the effulgence of the turgid condom. With one hand, the other arm still hooking her handbag, she hitched her skirt and squatted daintily. Bernard shuddered as the backs of her thighs greeted her heels and her undercarriage met the puddle with a tinkling splash.
Effie’s eyes glazed over. Bernard was several feet above her, but he could see her face well enough for a shiver of disgust and awe to meander through his petrified mind.
The air around him began to stagnate with an ancient, reeking filth that stung his eyes and made his teeth itch. Beneath the pounding of his brain he could hear Effie, mumbling dark and unknown words. Something unseen wreathed about him. Every part of his body was telling him he had to leave, needed to go, should run, must hide, but he couldn’t even try to move.
With a breath appropriating whoomph, the grimy air was sucked down, disappearing beneath Effie’s raincoat. Bernard heaved as a heavy, wet schlump reached his ears. He saw Effie rise on strong thighs and look up at him. Her grinning, satisfied face seemed to be only centimetres from his own.
“See you later Bernard,” she laughed. “I’ll be off now. Do be sure to say hello to Timothy for me.”
Bernard, now alone, stared down at the puddle. From his height he saw the condom only as a dirty blot, but its image grew in his mind. He tried not to imagine the form his executioner might take, but couldn’t fight the images of Effie’s children that tramped violently around his memory. He didn’t know what his death would be like but he knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. As if death ever would be, on this side at least. Bernard gripped life with as much tenacity as anybody, and knew he would continue to do so until the last moments, however much pain that was going to bring him in this now very short life.
His stomach convulsed as a geyser of pulpy white flesh burst from the puddle. The dirty veined segments of a giant worm pulsed wetly as they sped past him, feeding his horror. He strained to look down and saw its length gushing from the ground. Up above him it had almost reached the layer of grimy cloud.
Then calm; all he could hear was water and vernix sloshing off the thing before him and hitting the ground in soggy thumps. The worm began to coil itself down into a brawny strobilus, the hunger of a newborn focusing its raging pain on the nearest source of sustenance.
Bernard soiled himself. Most terrifying was the silence of the beast. If it had roared or cried or screamed it would have placed it firmly in the world, an animal ripped into by fear and anger that knew nothing but its own emptiness and desire for satiety. But its voiceless intrusion into the world spoke to Bernard inaccurately of confidence and intention.
The last of its length corkscrewed down and Bernard was faced with the eyeless wrath of this lost creature, a small ribbon of pinkish rubber hanging from one corner of its toothless mouth. The gaping hole served as eyes, nose, ears and tongue as it located Bernard’s energy. It hesitated, drew back, then in a second sucked him up and down inside itself with a muscular squelch.
Quite unsatisfied, the worm pondered its meagre meal. The sensation as Bernard began to leach through it hooked on to its fledgling consciousness, gathering its focus. This is me, it felt. More. With an empty roar it opened its single orifice to the sky and curled itself down tightly, then plummeted up and out into the world.
The crowd in the square hesitated, then wondered. Each looked across the empty clearing into the eyes of the person opposite them and asked mutely, what? They looked around, noting the riotous array of market wares that lay amongst them, trying to remember what they were waiting for. A few reached down nonchalantly to pick up a wet tea towel, cracked pack of blank DVDs or floor flecked joint of meat, stowing it in bag or pocket. Then they went about their days, some passing a perplexed, chinstroking market manager as they went.
Copyright Dan Sumners 2011