13 September 2008

Refuge: first chapter

Suter halted, his heart pounding, and crammed his binoculars to his eyes. What he had just glimpsed now lay before him in fearfully magnified view, snagged in the branches of a fallen willow some way downstream.
    A man’s body. Putrefying.
    His terror was complete. It was a measure of his character that he could make himself stand there for as long as he did, adjusting the focus, examining and exploring the image.
    At last, unable to bear any longer the torment of looking, he got behind the bole of the riverside copper beech and tried to think.
    Where had it come from? How long had it been in the water?
    “No,” he insisted. “You’re seeing things. When you’re ready to come out in the open, it just won’t be there. All right?”
    “All right.”
    “I thought all that was over with.”
    “Over with.”
    “Over and done.”
    His breathing had become more regular now. He touched the stock of his shotgun, hanging against his thigh.
    “You’re OK.”
    “I am?”
    “You are.”
    The beech tree was a personal friend. He loved and revered it, knew it in all its seasons. The grey bark lent it the gentle, benign air of an elephant. With one hand flat against it, Suter peeped out, along the riverbank.
    He had imagined nothing. The body was still there.
    “God help me.”
    Suter did not much care for God. He had said this as part of the continuous dialogue his two selves maintained aloud, a perennial, dreamlike commentary on the progress of his life. Certainly he did not expect help from any quarter, least of all from above. The very idea of help, of another’s assistance or intercession, had long ago faded from his mind.
    “You’ve got to,” he told himself, as he turned and started back, towards his house. “That’s all there is to it. I’m having no arguments. Get that ... what d’you call it? Gripper. Grapple. Whatever the hell it’s called.”
    The grapnel made its arc over the river, hit and bounced off the willow branches, fell uselessly into the water. He retrieved it and tried again.
    After several attempts, one of the hooks caught in the man’s jacket. Leather, it looked like.
    Suter hauled. The body came free of the willow, floated clockwise, and into the current, which instantly began contesting the prize.
    He was still face-down, a tall and well-built fellow, a heavy burden for one in Suter’s frame of mind.
    Suter thought of letting go. If he did that, the man might drift fully away, as far down as Uxbridge, even, or into the Thames at Staines. Suter imagined him passing later that day through London, unhindered, unobserved, under the bridges, out to Essex, to Shoeburyness, say, and on into the October stillness of the North Sea. Then Suter could forget about him, pretend he had never been.
    But he did not let go; and when the body grounded, its upper half in the bed of decaying flags which fringed this side of the river, he took out his knife and got down the bank. For the first time in over twelve years, he was about to come face to face with another human being.
    The smell was abominable.
    With his boot, he turned the body over. He made himself look.
    The facial tissue was putrid, monstrously bloated and discoloured. The beard had continued to grow somewhat – assuming that the man had been clean shaven at the time of death. His eyes had been removed, perhaps by crayfish. Or by the person or persons who had, with some big-bladed weapon, cut his throat so savagely as almost to sever the neck.
    Suter looked down at the knife he himself was holding and could not remember unsheathing it. He put it back where it belonged.
    His gaze returned to the body.
    Where this had come from, there would be another.
    “Admit it.”
    “I won’t.”
    “You must.”
    The victim had been quite young, in his twenties or early thirties. His blond hair had remained uncut for some years, and was plaited in a sort of pigtail. Suter eyed the leather jacket, the dark corduroy trousers, the bare, uncalloused feet. There were distinct abrasions on the right ankle.
    The wrists, too, showed signs of rope-burn. Using a stick, Suter levered back the right sleeve. A length of weed-stained nylon cord remained tied around the wrist, so tightly now that the knot was almost hidden. A few inches hung freely, cleanly cut.
    “Crummy jacket.”
    “See? You spoke to him.”
    “But did he answer?”
    In a daze, Suter fumbled with the zipper. It was made of nylon or something of that sort; after a few stiff tugs, he was able to undo it. Underneath was a dark sweater with a crew neck. This had shrunk, was impregnated with weed and mud and putrefaction. Under that, a blue twill shirt.
    “I don’t want to be doing this,” Suter thought, rather than said aloud: and at that moment realized his life had irretrievably changed. His former existence had slipped away, like something dropped by mistake into the abyss. It was as though he had just made a last, desperate attempt to catch it, to grab hold of the strap, but it had gone, falling and falling, and there was nothing he could do to get it back. He had imagined himself the most miserable, the most forlorn of men, but now he saw that, in his fashion, he had been happy.
    He forced himself to search the jacket pockets. In the left outer pocket he found a few galvanized nails and a large staple. From the right outer pocket he retrieved an unopened packet of Wrigley’s chewing-gum.
    In the inner, right-breast pocket, wrapped in what had presumably been a clean white handkerchief, he discovered a figurine carved from green soapstone. About two and a half inches high, it had the form of a little old man of oriental appearance, long-earlobed, grinning, with a domed forehead and a flowing beard. His right hand cupped what looked like a coconut, or pomegranate; his left, hidden in the fold of his robes, he was holding behind his back.
    The rest of the victim’s pockets were empty.
    Suter could take no more. It had been a very long time since he had searched a body. Once, he had grown used to the horrible passivity of corpses, but now he had reverted to squeamishness. He scrambled up the bank, getting away, also, from the smell. He knew he ought to remove the clothing, to see if there was something underneath, a tattoo, an identity tag, some clue to the man’s origins and background.
    He retreated a few steps upwind, upstream, descended the bank again, washed the figurine and his hands in the river and dried them on his trousers.
    Taking the figurine in his left hand, he remounted the bank and studied the body through his Trinovids. The head was at the limit of his close focus: three metres. It filled his field of view.
    He allowed the glasses to range about. The fingernails, deeply buried in swollen fingers, did not look as if they had known much manual work. The implications of this were ominous, ominous in the extreme. But then, how did one account for the staple and the fencing nails in his pocket?
    Was it possible that some sort of society had harboured him for the past twelve years?
    Or had he lived alone? Had he, too, fondly imagined himself the last man alive? And had the Supreme Being, with his infinite taste for jest, finally chosen to effect this droll introduction?
    Of course not – because some other, mortal, joker had tried to cut his head off.
    Perhaps he had transgressed. Maybe he had deserved it.
    “You ought to bury him.”
    Suter let down his binoculars and scrutinized the figurine, bringing its bearded face close to his own. He rather liked the feel of the soapstone under his thumb. He stroked the little man’s shoulder, turned him round and admired the clever, economical way he had been carved. The expression was uncanny: knowing, jovial; nothing could surprise a man like that, not even the turn of Suter’s life. He looked like a priest, a bonze, a holy sage. He had survived everything, even his downstream odyssey, entombed in the pocket of a corpse.
    Suter suddenly remembered himself. He had become so absorbed in his find that he had forgotten the basic rule of his existence. He looked defensively around.
    Then, reassured, he slipped the bonze into his own pocket and drew out his knife.
    The blade was deadly sharp. Twice a week Suter honed it on an oilstone. Under his microscope, the edge appeared virtually straight, without nicks or jags: he had once so examined it. Slicing through the sodden sweater and shirt, the knife revealed an unadorned torso. Suter cut the belt, peeled back the corduroy trousers. Nothing. Not even a scar.
    He retreated once again and took out his notebook. In his close, orderly, Pitman’s shorthand, he wrote:
    11 October, 0800 hours. Body in river at Tilehouse Bend.
    Caucasian male, aged about 28. Height, weight above average. Appeared well-nourished. Not obese. Blond hair, shoulder length, plaited, fixed with 2 black elasticated bands.
    Body swollen and disfigured. Putrefaction not very far advanced. Dead a week? In water same period?
    Throat cut, big blade, much force. Rope burns on wrists and right ankle. About 15 inches of blue cord remaining on right wrist.
    Some old amalgam fillings in upper and lower molars and premolars, no recent dental work. No eyes. Eaten by crayfish?
    Newish clothes. Chrome leather jacket, zipper front, 3 pockets. Label: Sportster. Corduroy trousers, dark green, no turn-ups, not repaired. Pockets empty. Label: Levi-Strauss. Woollen sweater, clerical grey, round neck. No darning. Label: St Michael. Blue twill, long-sleeved shirt. Button-down collar. Label: Van Heusen. White, thermal-type brushed cotton vest and underpants. Label: St Michael.
    Not circumcised. No scars or tattoos. No jewellery or watch. No socks or shoes. Hands and feet showed no obvious callouses.
    Jacket pockets:
    Left outer: 3 round wire nails, flat head, galvanized, 3”; 1 netting staple, 1”, galvanized. All unused.
    Right outer: 1 packet Wrigley’s chewing-gum, peppermint flavour, unopened.
    Inner breast: white cotton handkerchief wrapped round soapstone ?Buddhist figurine.

    “That’s it. You can do no more.”
    “All right. Now what?”
    “Get the barrow.”

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