Gladys- Part One
I was walking the dog when I found her. It was late November, about two in the morning, and I’d just slipped the lead to watch the dog streak off across grass that crunched like salt; white glass filaments stained amber by distant streetlights. He snorted steam like a horse and pounded widening ellipses across the football pitch. We couldn’t run free like this during the day. I drank the night in great gulps, crushed splinters underfoot and savoured unthinking. With each breath, the accumulated filth of my life rose away from me in a vaporous cloud. The spectre of my wife, sitting at home getting shitfaced. The ghosts of the children that were lost to us, chased away by her demons. My own nightmarish captivity; to her and to the guilt she represented, to the factory, to a life I was already disgusted with at twenty-eight years old. Out here there was just me, the dog and the frost. A hushed sound of distant traffic washed over us like gentle applause.
The dog was rooting about in the hedge. I just stood there with my hands in my pockets, gazing across the field at distant windows, wondering who was living out what miseries inside. A low growl, a warning from the darkness brought me back to the now with a jolt. My eyes groped in the oily shadow of the hedgerow- I found a light shape and walked towards it. I could make out the dog, his tail wagging nervously, the growling softened to a puzzled whine. There was something else there, something long, and pale and unmoving. It was a naked body.
Everything inside my chest seemed to roll over; I ran the last few steps with my heart full of shuddering horror. The sight of it, the paleness of it was obscene against the black and the cold. It was an unformed thing, it looked new-born, somehow miraculous even as my head was screaming murder- this was a murder I had found a murder. It seemed an age before I was crouching over the body, an age in which every thought or word or deed I had ever committed seemed to boil up and evaporate into insignificance. My entire miserable existence had been nothing but a preliminary to this moment. I sensed all of this without my mind articulating any of it. It was dreadful- a beautiful, superlative and dreadful epiphany.
I thudded to my knees beside the body, about to gather it in my arms when I was overcome by petrifying indecision. My outstretched hands stopped short halfway between us. The body seemed to glow against grey-green ash. I began to see her. There was hair- masses of it- black as blood, a pool of serpents guarding her pale head. I looked for wounds, injuries, but there were none. She was definitely alive; though her breathing was slight she seemed to exude energy from every curve and hollow of her form. Her lips parted in a blissful smile. With her head resting on one arm she stretched her body as luxuriantly as if in her own bed. My initial terror was tempered, dissolving into confusion and distrust. I glanced around me, half suspecting some kind of trap- I saw nothing but darkness. The dog met my eye and whined, as perplexed as I was. I shrugged. She stirred, and with a jolt I realised my false position as voyeur and potential threat. I bounced to my feet and staggered backward. She opened one eye.
“Hello.” Her voice was soft and calm. We could’ve been old friends, standing at the bar. Words failed me. She rolled onto her back in an abrupt movement, absently rubbing her hollow belly, gazing at the stars. White, childish breasts pointed skyward. She was very little, very lean. I became self-conscious and looked away, though she didn’t seem in the least fazed. I shrugged off my coat, held it out to her, and she laughed.
“Oh, thanks.” Sitting up, she pulled the coat round her and got to her feet. I didn’t even offer her a hand, just stood there like a dumb thing. It crossed my mind that perhaps I was dreaming. Fortunately the coat was massive- down to her knees. She looked me in the face and grinned, and though her face looked exhausted there was a glitter of mirth in it that made me smile back.
“Are you alright? Are you…” I trailed off, stumped. What was she? Her smile widened.
“I’m fine.” She scanned the frozen field. “Don’t know how I got here. It happens sometimes.” She’d started walking; somehow I fell into step beside her. “It’s a good job you found me, who knows what could’ve happened.” She gave me a sideways glance and half a smile. “I can tell you’re a good sort. Come round mine for a cup of tea- I’ll get some clothes on and you can have your coat back.”
I nodded in the dark. My mind was full of questions, doubts, wonder. I couldn’t focus on any one thought; couldn’t think of a word to say, just plodded tamely at her side like a bull on a stick. Her bare feet made no sound on the frozen earth. She seemed to float. I caught myself looking back, to make sure she’d left footprints. As we neared the street, I just about remembered to clip the dog back on the lead. He’d been trotting behind her, eyes wide, wolf ears all askew. He was mystified. She seemed to tire of our stupefied silence.
“I’m Gladys, what’s your name? You from round here? What’s the dog called?”
“Err, I’m Sean, this is Clive, we live just down Farrier’s there...” She turned the full beam of her grin on me, laughing a big, happy laugh. Now we were out in the street I thought her quite beautiful, in an odd way. Her eyes- liquid black in the gloom- they seemed full of jokes. And affection, for everything.
“The dog’s called Clive? Brilliant. Aye Clive?” This last she addressed to the dog- the big, fierce dog I could only walk in the dead of night because he was such a nutter. He gazed up at her lovingly with his ears all skewiff, wagging his tail like a mug. “Nearly there, I’m just round the corner.” Her small, bare feet slapped neatly on the pavement. “Bit fresh aye!” She dug her hands into the pockets of my coat as I murmured assent, wondering how she wasn’t a shivering wreck. “What’s these?” She whipped a hand free and held it to her face. “Marbles!” She seemed to pour her smile all over her face. It slid from one side to the other. “You got kids?”
She inspected the marbles, holding them up to the light, and craned her neck sideways to examine my face, bare feet slip slapping all the while.
“You’re a special boy.” She said it in the tone I’d already grown used to; brimming with mirth, but something told me she wasn’t taking the piss. “Here we are.”