Victoria Briggs

After Zhivago

Victoria Briggs

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The smell in Greg’s ground floor flat was more offensive than any he had ever known. Noxious and cloying with syrupy top notes like the perfume of an aged aunt. He’d been down to the bottom of the garden a half dozen times already trying to locate its source. He suspected a fox was rotting in the undergrowth. Or maybe a fox had offed a feral cat.

      Greg went inside and dug around under the sink where he kept the cleaning products and laundry tabs. When he’d lived with Kate there’d been any number of sprays he could have called on to mask the smell, aromatherapy candles that she lit on winter evenings and citrus scented bath bombs that wafted down the hall. But now, without Kate, without the bath bombs, all he could find was furniture polish to camouflage the stench.

      As it was his turn to have Lara this weekend, he considered calling Kate to explain about the smell. To explain to her there was a smell – a really bad one. Kate had an aversion to unexpected surprises and Lara had been clingier with her mother just of late. A smell like that had the power to derail an entire weekend. It was only fair he called ahead so they came prepared.

      He went to get his phone and stopped, his index finger poised above the keypad. He should probably call the council first. If something had died on public land then it was up to them to send a team to dispose of its remains. It’s what Kate would expect, that he would have this situation of his in hand. It was his problem, after all – he could hear her voice telling him now. Now they were no longer together, he couldn’t just call her whenever he felt like it. She had her own shit to deal with. He should only bother her with his if it was likely to affect Lara in some fundamental way.

      Greg went to find the number for the council, taking a detour via the kettle. The smell had lodged in the high recesses of his airways; he thought a mint tea might dissolve its rancid algae from his tongue.

      While speaking to some Stasi official from the council was the very last thing he felt like doing, he knew email was no substitute for getting something done. It had taken them a week to shift a sofa that had been stuck outside his door, once, while reports of graffiti via the council’s app all but went ignored. 

       Greg waited for the kettle to boil and remembered his breathing: to draw air in through the nose and hold. Release it slowly through the mouth, and repeat.

      He dialled the council’s number.

      He pressed one to confirm he was resident within council boundaries.

      He pressed three to report a problem.

      He pressed three again to be connected to an operator.

      There was a click on the line, a changeover of recording or else small bones shifting deep within his ear. Then the mumble of muzak, some flat jazz parody, before a woman’s voice cut through.

      We are sorry for the delay. Your call is important to us and one of our operators will be with you shortly.

      Greg sat on a kitchen stool and used his outward breaths to cool his tea. He listened to the on-hold jazz and pointed the can of furniture polish up towards the ceiling. When he pressed the aerosol nozzle down, its contents hissed to earth in a meteor shower of foamy strings.


#


Greg and Kate hadn’t been a couple long when she found out she was pregnant.

      Lara, in zygote form, had not been in their forward plan.

      For Kate the first few months were difficult ones. Her view of the world as ordered and manageable, undermined by doubt and morning sickness, by medical appointments where midwives wielding ultrasounds exercised control.

      Throughout those months, Greg had never loved Kate more. She was warm and round and wept so easily, her spikiness blunted by empathy hormones. All fault-finding swaddled in an extra layer of fat. They couldn’t watch the news without her dissolving into tears. They listened to music instead – Joni Mitchell, Carole King – and watched romantic films together. Of all the classics, Dr Zhivago was her favourite: Julie Christie, radiant in a sable hat. Omar Sharif’s eyes glittering darkly against the backdrop of a frozen Volga.

      When he asked Kate to marry him, he imagined that life would always be this way: emotional, cocooned, filled with epic longing. But Kate had told him not to be ridiculous. He was massaging her lower back at the time. She was in her third trimester and the Braxton Hicks were kicking in.

      He heard a distant click on the line.

      We are sorry for the delay. Your call is important to us and one of our operators will be with you shortly.

      Greg was aware of the phone getting hot against his ear. The beeswax polish he’d been spraying in the air lay like dissolving strands of cuckoo spit all around his feet.


#


      The second time he’d proposed to Kate was when she was in labour. When she was ten centimetres dilated and every bit the beauty queen.

      He was caught up in the forceful wonder of it all, Kate thrashing round the delivery suite like a Neanderthal Eve and his child pushing down, pushing out, insisting that the world should let her be. The glory of the female pelvis: a portal of flesh in the fabric of space. He couldn’t help himself, the words had just tumbled out.

      Kate, growling on all fours, had screamed at him to shut up and pass the fucking gas and air. He’d helped her with her breathing, the both of them panting like oversized dogs. Then his tears, springing from nowhere, as Lara’s crown squeezed into view.

      Greg went outside to distract himself from his memories. He walked with the phone to the bottom of the garden while the on-hold music took a more Latin direction.

      In the kitchen, amid the mint tea and the polish, he’d managed to convince himself the smell outside was not as bad as he’d first thought. But now, standing by the fence that overlooked the common, it seemed as if something evil had been summoned from the depths.

      Pulling up the neckline of his t-shirt to cover his nose and mouth, Greg cast around for neighbours, someone who could corroborate his claim in case the council asked. He peered over the top of the fence, looking for dog walkers, runners – allies of any description. It was inconceivable he was the only one who was gagging on the smell.

      There was no-one around that he could see. He thought about knocking on the door of the upstairs flat to ask Krystian if he could smell it too. Their only conversations to date though – about a power cut and, once, when Krystian had locked himself out – had been stilted, in broken English. As Greg didn’t speak any Polish, he didn’t fancy his chances when it came to something as amorphous as dealing with a smell, as rotten as it was.

      At least with the power cut, both sides had props that they could call on to aid communication. Greg, holding a torch, had pointed to the darkened lamp posts and swept his arm along the blacked-out street. Krystian had nodded, knocking on the rusty outside meter box, urging a shared connection in his heavy, guttural tongue.

      What were they supposed to do this time? Explore the perimeter of the common together in search of flies, for any sign of a maggot banquet that might be in full swing? And if they did locate the source of the smell, what then? Neither of them owned the land so it wasn’t as if they could solve this most ancient of problems by digging alone. Permits and permission would be required, and likely, too, a licence.

      The on-hold music, a feeble bossa nova, stopped its mockery in mid-flow.

      We are sorry for the delay. Your call is important to us and one of our operators will be with you shortly.

      ‘Jesus,’ Greg shouted down the line, over the fence, into the fug of violence blanketing the undergrowth. ‘You bleed us dry in taxes and all we get for it is this shit?’


#


He retreated inside the flat.

      This is what it feels like to be the last man alive, he thought. This is how it all ends. Apocalypse. End times. A lone man clinging to a phone while a dead world festers just beyond the door. 

      Greg was approaching his dark place. He saw the signs cluttering his peripheral vision. He recognised its entry points. A frequent visitor at the time he and Kate were splitting up and a permanent resident, for a while, just after.

      His most recent immersion into darkness had coincided with, of all things, Lara starting school. He wasn’t ready for it, this pig-tailed child, this angel, forced to swap tea parties with imaginary friends for servitude and tests. He knew that anything other than the best school would not do for Kate, but he owed it to Lara to mediate on her behalf.

      ‘There are other options,’ he’d said to Kate.

      ‘Like what?’

      ‘Like home schooling.’

      ‘Are you serious?’

      ‘I’m just giving you examples.’

      ‘You teach her, you mean?’

      ‘You asked for other options. Home schooling is an option.’

      Then there was forest school, he told her, that Greg had read about online. A woodland refuge where kids were taught in open-air classrooms, sheltered by trees. They learnt arithmetic by counting birds’ eggs and the alphabet by scratching with a stick into the soil. They grew potatoes in a vegetable patch and swam naked in a river.

      ‘A shallow river,’ he added, when he saw Kate’s face turn stony. ‘In summer, when it’s warm.’

      She took a step towards him. ‘If this is you going into your dark place, then don’t think for a second you’re taking Lara there with you.’

      He tried to explain: he wasn’t trying to take Lara into the darkness so much as give her a way out of it.

      ‘She’s five years old, Greg.’

      ‘That’s my point,’ he said. ‘That’s my point exactly.’

      It had ended badly, with Greg following Kate out onto the street in his bare feet, Lara in tears. ‘What’s wrong?’ he shouted after their car as it drove off. ‘Don’t you want her to be free?’

      He hadn’t seen Lara for his next two scheduled weekends with her. Various reasons – a temperature, some bug, blown in from nowhere, and then a play date with a friend. Greg had sunk into despondency. He could see a pattern forming. A matrix of flimsy excuses that stretched far into the future, where access to his daughter would be granted or denied based on a whim, a dice roll, the vagaries of Caesar’s thumb.

      And now, just when he and Kate had got themselves back onto an even keel, there had come this smell that was likely to upset Lara and anger Kate because, who in their right mind would want their kid breathing that in?

      Greg made a mental note to tell all this to his counsellor at their next meeting. He’d started having therapy a while back, when the rail tracks on his journey into work began beckoning to him to come and lie down in their long steel arms. To sleep within their sleepers.

      Meredith, his counsellor, had asked him to keep a diary of his feelings. They spent the first ten minutes of each session reviewing what he’d written down. 

      We are sorry for the delay – said the recorded voice – your call is important to us and one of our operators will be with you shortly.

      Greg hung up the phone. His throat had started to tighten, a pernicious layering of doubt and frustration that thickened his airways from the inside. This disembodied woman with her clipped voice was a tactic. The world and its bureaucrats forever intent on making him crack. And, in spite of their best efforts, all their sublime provocations, he was really trying not to crack. 


#


His sessions with Meredith had been of some help. Greg blamed himself for everything and she let him talk and talk. About city kids whose only access to nature were road side saplings and patches of grass bejewelled with lumps of topaz dog shit. And street corners piled high with fly-tip shrines and backstreets that were ghettoes of condoms and syringes.

      Try Googling survival skills, he told her, when the national grid’s been hacked. When some nut’s dropped uranium in the water supply or the oil wells have dried up. Try learning from books when the ice caps have melted and civilisation is floating face down.

      It wasn’t the idea of the world ending that bothered him as much as the waiting around for it to happen.

      ‘So you see your own destruction as something that’s inevitable?’ Meredith had asked him.

      Greg didn’t have an answer and so he told her about Kate and the Zhivago days instead. About Zhivago himself: Yuri chasing love along a crowded street before dying of a broken heart. 


#


He left the flat, walked down to the pay phone on the corner of the street and punched in 999.

      It wasn’t something he’d planned to do, pay phones and police didn’t tend to feature in his life and he couldn’t remember if he’d ever had recourse to either.

      As soon as he stepped inside the phone box he almost changed his mind. A Tardis of piss and prostitute call-cards, of women in garish knickers and ammonia fumes that brought tears to his eyes. He balked at the thought of having to touch the phone without a hand wipe, but calling the police this way meant they couldn’t trace him. And only they could help him now, he reasoned. Only the police could act to fix this mess.

      There was a click on the line. ‘Emergency. Which service?’

      Greg froze.

      ‘Emergency. Which service, caller?’

      ‘Police,’ he said. ‘I need the police.’

      Another click. His mind raced. What was he supposed to say now? He hadn’t thought beyond this point. It had to be something catastrophic to justify his calling them. Some unmitigated horror that would prompt an immediate response.

      ‘This is the police operator. Can I take your name please?’

      Greg’s mouth went dry. ‘There’s an emergency.’

      ‘Your name please, sir.’

      He gave a false one – Jacob Smith – someone he’d been to school with.

      ‘Your address, Mr Smith?’

      He lied.

      ‘And where are you calling from?’

      He told them.

      ‘What’s the nature of the emergency?’

      ‘There’s a dead child,’ he said, ‘on Hanlon’s Common. Over on the east side, near to where the houses are.’

      He slammed down the phone. The women in their knickers all stared down at him in judgement. The ammonia fumes were making him wretch. He fled the phone box, made it as far as the lamppost, and emptied out his guts.


#


It didn’t take them long to get there.

      He watched their arrival from the kitchen window, in two cars parked along the Commons’ edge. Then their steady advance across the grass, parting the undergrowth with batons, looking underneath bushes, peering round the back of trees. There was at least one woman among them – she was shorter than the rest. A stab vest thickened her midriff and lent her chest a boxy shape.

      Greg lost track of time. Their movements were co-ordinated, almost elegant, at a distance. Like the rehearsals of migratory birds or a raid on pollen by a hive of bees. When they got closer to the fence, coalescing lower down where flowering hawthorn grew unchecked, he stepped back from the window. Maybe they’d take whatever it was away with them. Maybe they’d call the council’s waste team and have them move it on instead.

      They were so close now that he could hear their voices. An indistinct discussion with words swallowed by the window pane.

      He left them to it and withdrew into his quiet place. Away from the cause of the smell, the source of it, what he imagined had been its suffering. He tried not to think about anything other than his breathing: the acceptance of self on the in-breath, the surrender of it to the out. Inhalation and exhalation. The rise and release of the diaphragm; the ribs’ embrace of the whispering lungs.

      The minutes passed. The memory of the smell receded.

      At the still centre between his breaths, he thought he could hear a small hand knocking loudly at the door.



Victoria Briggs


Victoria Briggs is a writer with short stories published in Unthology 8Short FictionStructoProleLitro,The Nottingham Review and others. She once won the Asham Award for women writers and has previously been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in London and tweets @vicbriggs.