“An ordinary man” is the third story I decided to post during this special month. In this case, according to the contest, I had to tell a story about something dirty and include a certain set of words (left in bold in the text).
I decided to go full Edgar-Allan-Poe mode on this one!
I hope you will enjoy it.
A very ordinary sort of man. He might have come off an assembly line, mass-produced on a conveyor belt using a factory mould. That’s how James Millar would have described himself if doing so might not have made other people feel uncomfortable. But James Millar was far too discreet ever to cause embarrassment to anyone and so he plodded along, leading his empty life and leaving no mark on the lives of others. A schoolteacher, so mild-mannered that none of his students could remember him ever raising his voice. “Not very strict and not really very good,” would have been the verdict of nearly all of them, looking back in later life.
Hitting fifty, with a few white hairs and a figure which had never been athletic and was now turning to flab, he lived his life by an invisible clock. Every morning, upon waking, he breakfasted, planted a kiss on his wife’s forehead and headed off to school. When he came back home, he would spend most of his free time in an armchair, watching documentaries and complaining about how uncomfortable his chair had become over the years. At his age, he could have done with a headrest. Passionate about archaeology and bored by all the documentaries about animals, except for that special one about macaws which he would happily watch over and over again, he would stay there until it was time to go to bed, which he always did at an early hour, ready for another day even more boring than the one before.
And this was his routine, regular as clockwork, until one day he woke up and found Mildred, his wife, cleaning the filter of the extractor hood in the kitchen. In an unwanted burst of empathy, he decided to help her and soon his hands were completely covered with a grey and sticky substance, that mixture of grease and dust that forms inside those gadgets; it completely turned his stomach. In the bathroom, he tried to wash off the grease but only ended up spreading it further across the palms and backs of his hands. He tried using hand-wash lotion, in the process dirtying both the dispenser and the washbasin. Desperate now, he used even more soap and ran the water almost boiling hot. But the ghastly substance began to cover his wrists and forearms, plastering the hairs against his skin in thick clumps.
“What are you doing? You’ve been in here for half an hour!” asked Mildred, coming in and finding him up to the elbows in soap suds. “All this fuss for a bit of grease.” She took his arm, observing that it was perfectly clean and pointing out that if he didn’t get moving he was going to be late. The man was horrified to see the substance spreading onto the palms of his wife’s hands. How could she possibly not notice it? Or was he going mad?
“Idiot! There’s no need to start imagining things.” he thought.
He decided to say nothing about it. She didn’t deserve to have a crazy husband.
Resigned, he dried his arms, thoroughly soiling one of the towels, and slipped his maths book into his bag. He found it hard even to roll down his shirtsleeves without throwing up and, as he left the house, his anxiety that perhaps he was going off his head left him with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, as though he were about to take a dive from a great height into a pool of sharks.
At work, none of his colleagues appeared to notice the filth all over his hands. He decided that the best thing to do was ignore it all, even if suffering hallucinations left him feeling distinctly anxious and the form they took prevented him from resorting to his usual remedy when unsettled: biting his nails.
“Temporary insanity.” he concluded to himself, “Probably happens to everyone, some time or other. It’s not the kind of thing you mention to other people.”
It wasn’t easy to put the problem out of his mind, especially as he seemed to be sullying everything he touched. Not even Professor Davis’s usual chatter, with his fantasies about getting off with Miss Sanders, could stop him from constantly checking the state of his hands out of the corner of his eye. He decided to skip lunch with his colleagues, afraid they might notice something strange in his behaviour.
Only a small group of final year boys hung around the corridors during lunch break. Two of them, sitting on the floor like a couple of down-and-outs, were lurking around, rather too rowdily. It was then that he heard it for the first time. A metallic clanging, as if someone had slammed a locker door. The kids gave no sign of having heard anything. The noise came again. This time he was able to tell which locker it was coming from – it sounded almost as if something inside was trying to get out. Again, the kids didn’t seem to notice anything untoward.
Approaching the locker, he read the name of its owner: Liam Harris. He felt a stabbing pain in his guts as if a hand were squeezing his intestines. He rushed to the bathroom, to the evident surprise of the boys, who remained oblivious to the incessant din coming from the locker.
Why now, after all these months?
Liam. The only time he had succumbed, in spite of having often been tempted. But that kid had been just too distraught. His staring eyes, his blank gaze – he would have told his parents everything. What else could he have done? What would poor Mildred have thought?
He could still hear that awful din from the hallway. He put his face in his hands and began to cry. The filthy bathroom, covered in graffiti, the stench of pee in the air and his own reflection in the mirror, showing his face covered by that greyish liquid, made him retch.
He locked himself in one of the cubicles and sat on the toilet, covering his ears to block out the thumping noise, whilst his temples throbbed relentlessly in time with his heartbeat.
He emerged from his improvised refuge only several hours later, during which time the noise had never let up. It followed him as he trailed, defeated, along the dark corridor, lessons now long since over. When he found himself once more in front of the locker, he gave a sigh, resigned now to his fate. He opened it. Inside lay a note in his own handwriting. A confession.
James Millar was a very ordinary sort of man, but he had a secret. They found him dead, drowned in a perfectly clean toilet. In his coat pocket, a note and instructions on where to find a corpse.
Thanks to Ellen Prior for the translation.
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