Imbroglio Magazine selected this short story for their third issue, which was supposed to be available on print but then was published on Issuu instead:
It had been another difficult car journey, in a difficult week. But just pulling up the drive to Pauline’s house Mumsy began feeling herself again. On the back seat, little Rico sat looking out of the window, waiting for her to open the door. He’s like the pope, she thought, a very precious person in need of very particular treatment. Rico wore no seat belt, he refused, but this did not worry her. She believed that he was charmed. For an instant, her heart welled unbearably.
“Come on Mumsy. Don’t be sluggish.” he said in his breathy voice. Nodding, she hoisted herself out and opened his door.
“Hell-ooo!” Pauline’s voice rang across the gravel and out she came, arms open, dress billowing. Rico accepted his Aunt’s embrace without complaint. It was a necessary ritual, he understood that. Like being frisked entering an important building, and he was gracious in allowing it. As long as relations were strictly below the waist, and he need not encounter the strange bumps on her face in any way, he was happy to oblige. Pauline played her part with all the bluster and dozen-arm fussing of a textbook adoring relative. It was as well-rehearsed an act as any in her domestic arsenal, and she clearly took pleasure in being effective. It reminded her of beating dust from a carpet. Feeling her grip slacken, Rico wriggled free and began towards the house, resuming the half-bored, vaguely contemptuous exploratory strut that he adopted on every visit anywhere.
“You’re just in time for lunch” said Pauline, clutching her sister’s forearm affectionately. Feeling the muscle stiffen, she realised her mistake. Had he heard? No, thank god.
Pauline watched her nephew, a stripy sweater taut around his chubby torso, meandering through her garden. It was a wonderland that made most visiting children wail and sprint hysterically. But Rico was not like most children. To discuss food around him was to gamble recklessly with the day ahead. He had eaten nothing but bread and butter since the morning of his 6th birthday, over a year ago. On special occasions he would allow dishes to be served in front of him, on the understanding that he would not be expected, or encouraged, to eat it and that bread and butter would be provided as well. Should this, or any other of his clearly stated requirements not be met, Mumsy and Daddy knew what to expect. The doctor had been consulted several times, but his private, man-to-man chats with Rico had not gone well. This is how it had all begun.
As they entered the drawing room, Pauline breathed a loud sigh of relief, so loud she thought it best to disguise it as a grand exhalation of satisfaction. “Aaahnow who wants a cup of tea?”
“Ooh, lovely” said Mumsy, poring over some new arrivals in the spoon cabinet.
“Alice? Tea love?” Pauline was speaking to a girl sat at a small table at the far end of the room. Rico watched her from behind a tall-backed armchair. Cousin Alice. One of a homogenous gaggle of older female cousins Rico had ignored stories about for many years. A vague and shifting notion of girlhood, none of them seemed interesting enough to waste energy on speaking to or remembering or making solid in his mind. Alice. Was she a nurse? At least two of them were. She was surely the blandest of them, all fleshy biceps, pale yet dense looking. They bulged from her short-sleeved, rather outdated dress with none of the definition or hair of Daddy’s. And yet, something unnerved Rico about them all the same. The dress was pink and beige. Her hair, straight and lank. Was she 14? She could be 21. She was reading, and eating something in fierce nibbles. She seemed just as functionless as Rico had always assumed them all to be. Rico himself liked to eat his bread and butter in great ripping mouthfuls, often too much to manage in one go. He had more than once been saved from choking to death, only to seize another cheek-bulger moments later. At the mention of tea, she stood.
“Oh. Hello Aunty Margaret. Hello Rico. Yes I’d love some tea please, Mum.” Her voice was sugary. She was boring. Rico yawned.
They adjourned to the kitchen for the tea, it was cooler there, “and easier to clean up if there are any accidents” Pauline whispered behind her fist to Alice.
With the pattern book open in front of her on the kitchen table, Mumsy excitedly outlined the day she envisioned to a half-listening Pauline, whose eyes were following Rico on his noisy tour of the kitchen. She did not mind the humming or the constant touching, but the faces he made caused the hair on her arms to bristle.
“How was the drive?” said Pauline, carving the bread into thick wedges. “Did the A54 treat you kindly?”
“Yes” said Mumsy, “though that can’t be said for everyone, I’m afraid. Mumsy had a visit from ‘Naughty Rico’ at breakfast.” Rico stopped walking, turned to face the ambush. The tribunal.
“Wasn’t I, darling?”
“Aaaaah” pantomimed Pauline judiciously, folding her arms. Alice sat back in her chair.
“But Nice Rico has come to stay for the rest of the day we hope, hasn’t he?” Rico said nothing. Mumsy was concentrating hard. She hated Naughty Rico. He was a brutish menace, who turned her son, against his will, into a slobbering, screaming typhoon. She did not understand where he had come from, or how to get rid of him. It was because of him that ‘Mumsy’ had come into existence. A wholesome yin to Naughty Rico’s distasteful Yang. Gradually over time Naughty Rico had gained concrete form, with clear and distinct preferences that Rico himself did not have, and knew nothing about. Naughty Rico was a stranger with whom he had never really been in the same room. He felt no responsibility towards him. No hatred, or loyalty. He was like a sometime relative. A cousin. He felt resemblance, but all else was obscure. Naughty Rico’s arrival would be signalled by a contraction of his muscles; a leg would stiffen, a finger arch, and his alter ego would emerge to share his body. Rico would simply move across to the passenger seat and enjoy the ride.
“How can a boy survive on just bread and butter? How is that possible? Why doesn’t your hair fall out?” said Alice, nibbling at a slice of Rico’s bread. Behind her, the kettle began to scream a warning visible on the faces of everyone else in the room. Pauline skilfully deflected the matter with a tangent into the questionable nutritional benefits of eating grubs in the Australian outback. Alice began to serve the tea. Rico rolled his head and fidgeted for a moment. He was unsure what had exactly just gone on, he was unsure where to look in rooms with people he didn’t like. So he did not see Alice with the kettle until the very last moment. In one fluid action she brushed past him, the hot kettle touching his cheek for just an instant. His sharp squeal of pain was drowned out by the clattering pan of potatoes that, in his agony, he knocked from the nearby table.
“Why? Why are you like this?” Mumsy said in a desperate voice that broke away to nothing. As surprised as any of them, she fell to her knees and began to collect the scattered potatoes from where they had rolled, her head bowed. A thick cloud of embarrassment invaded the room, filling every one of them with the same strange, silent dread. If Mumsy were to truly break, how would things carry on? She was a big, fat prop upon which everything rested. She did the job no-one else could ever do.
Feeling that question enter him, and seeing his mother cry, Rico tried his best to answer her sincerely and realised he could not. He considered defending himself, but Alice had left the room in search of a mop and he knew it was pointless. Pauline, relieved that the disaster had been relatively small, joined Mumsy on the floor.
“Mumsy can’t keep doing this. I don’t want to, but if Naughty Rico comes out again today” – Pauline’s eyebrows twitched silent encouragement – “there will be no trip to The Gables this year. Do you understand?”
Rico stood stiff and silent as the women scrubbed the starch water from around his feet. Somewhere far away, he thought he heard a familiar voice and the sound of metal vessels being struck.
Tea was over. Alice and ‘Nice Rico’ were sent upstairs to the attic, to make friends and stack books. Rico went surprisingly obediently. He was happy to play in the charade of doing ‘chores’, like an aristocrat on the board of a business who attends meetings in order to continue receiving his salary. He would attend, but he would not work. Inevitably, big-armed Alice – being older – had been given the power to report back on his behaviour and ‘watch out for Naughty Rico’. The visit had been conceived as an excuse for Rico to be exposed to her good influence, though privately Mumsy feared for Alice’s life. As they walked, Alice insisted on holding his hand to lead him through the house. Her clammy palms were too much to bear, and his arm began spastic convulsions, like an eel wrestling free of a line. His fingers went slack as he tried to remove himself utterly from the hand-holding partnership but her grip held firm, grinding his knuckles together. She stopped.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want to hold your stinking hand!”
“You know you shouldn’t treat your mother like that.”
Rico tried to read her peculiar expression, but she turned and dragged him onwards. It was a mundane task, stooping around under the low, angular ceiling, stuffing fistfuls of books from boxes onto shelves. The only satisfaction to be had was from slamming the heavy ones hard into place, and enjoying the boom it sent through the whole room. But when she forbade him from doing even that he gave a yowl and went to sit on the broken rocking horse.
“Oh look. What’s this?” Alice held in her hand a book of plays for children. “Look what I’ve found, Rico.”
“Found in your pocket. I saw you.”
“No, in this box actually. Let’s perform one together.” Rico found this suggestion so distasteful that he gagged, creating a kind of breathless hacking noise. “Play with me.” said Alice. The first story was called The Dwarf and the Hunter. Alice played most of the characters, including all the animals, and the handsome hunter, a role Rico found more than convincing as she flexed her impressive biceps. As the Dwarf, he had few lines, most of them riddles designed to trick the hunter into falling asleep. She made him stand on an up-turned box to do his speeches, and seeing Alice grinning every time he said a word – in the ‘dwarf voice’ she insisted that he use – he found his throat closing with hatred. It didn’t take long for his arm to begin to twitch.
“I’m warning you, I don’t like this,” he said.
“And I’m warning you.” Reaching over, she turned the small brass key in the small brass lock. Somewhere inside himself, Rico stepped aside.
The tantrum was fabulous in its complexity and length. Teeth gnashing and arms flailing, Naughty Rico introduced himself to the room, span randomly, tossing books where he found them against the walls, slapping his palms against the window panes, pulling at his own hair. He was devastation personified, spitting and biting wildly at nothing, experimenting with a horrible glottal wailing from the throat, a trick learned from his experiments with his grandmother’s cat. The whole spectacle continued much longer than anyone could have predicted, and when it did eventually come to a grinding, wheezing, tearful end, Rico awoke in a body that had been thoroughly abused, with a long paper-cut the length of his forearm.
“I…I’ve cut my arm. It’s bleeding.” It was not an exclamation, but an instruction. He was shivering. He’d never had to wait this long after an episode before being swept up in tight cuddles before. It was very strange. Alice sat biting a cuticle with care.
“Really?” She turned to look at him. “That was Naughty Rico was it? That was him?”
“Oh. Well something definitely needs to be done there. Wouldn’t you agree? I’d say he needs getting rid of.” He tried to speak, but nothing was there. His lips simply formed an O. Alice extended a forefinger towards the hole, as if preparing to poke it inside. Somewhere downstairs they heard Pauline’s voice calling them to lunch. Alice unlocked the door.
Lunch was a stale affair. Mumsy and Pauline were doing all the usual things, and yet the time was dragging heavily. For Rico, it was unbearable. Never once had he been tormented by Naughty Rico and not had his hangover nursed with affection afterwards. He itched to tell Mumsy what had happened, and yet her threat about The Gables held him back. He watched Alice nibbling. She did not look at him once. The bread and butter was like ash in his mouth. As the plates were cleared, Alice went to the sideboard, cut a piece of fruitcake, robed it in brown paper and slipped it into her pocket. She then picked up a melon, felt its weight and tucked it under her arm.
“Come on Rico.” He tried to refuse, but his raw, aching throat made no sound.
There was none of the strained hand-holding from earlier. He understood the subtle art of revenge even though he did not understand exactly what was happening around him. His hatred of Alice was raw and soft and pliable, with every step he moulded it into a harder and harder thing, a weapon he might use in the privacy of the attic. But they did not go to the attic, this time she took him to a strange nook on the upper landing, a place he had never been and wished he had known about sooner. She crouched.
“This naughty Rico business. It has to stop. I don’t see any other solution. We have to murder him. Do you agree?”
Rico decided at that moment that, despite everything, he liked Alice a lot. He felt a strange warm, tingling at the top of his legs at the suggestion of murder, as forbidden and mysterious a thing as he knew. It was the most seductive invitation he could possibly imagine, and the sense that he was about to receive an important new lesson completely drowned out any thoughts of revenge, or concern as to what it might actually entail. It felt as serious and thrilling as vandalising a piece of family furniture, hugely provocative and yet without any real long-term damage to anyone. She spat on her palm and insisted he do the same, before shaking his hand. Then she led him down the back staircase and out into the garden.
The day had become overcast, but it was as new friends that they walked together to the far end of the garden. It was dark underneath the poplars and Rico’s eyes began to strain as they foraged deeper and deeper into the wilderness where Pauline never tended. He watched Alice as close as he could, but his heart still leaped when she turned on him suddenly.
“Get out you horrid boy,” she shouted in his face. “Come here so you might face your fate!” Rico waited, wondering what, if anything, he should do. Alice closed her eyes to a squint.
“Get out, I say,” she went on, slipping her fingers through the soft, dark ringlets that covered his scalp, and gently grasping a healthy fistful.
“I said come OUT!” With a jerk of her hand, she sent spasms of pain through Rico’s right side. He went limp in her hand, a puppet that she maneuvered this way and that to her liking before dropping him like laundry to the ground. Rico gasped, a shrill little breath, and did his best to grin as he fought back the acid surge of tears.
“Is it over? Is he gone?” said Rico. Alice held his face in her palms, and studied his eyes, the way a vet might with a dubious lamb.
“No. I’m afraid not.” Rico pressed one hand against his aching head, cocked the other as jauntily as he could manage on his waist. Alice stood straight, her face open and blank to him.
“You’re going to have to say it. Say ‘Naughty Rico must die’. You must want him to die. It’s the only way.”
There was a pause and Rico’s lips began to twitch, each movement a different question that dared not slip out for fear of making things worse. Without meaning to, Rico felt the words she had demanded enter the world from somewhere inside him.
“Good. Take off your clothes.” Confused beyond reason, Rico obediently did as she asked and was soon stood naked except for his navy blue underpants, his numb feet tickled by the various plants that sat watching them.
In an uncanny impression of Pauline, Alice gathered his clothes into a bundle, before arranging them like a person on the ground between them: trousers first, laid flat, then above them his shirt, arms crossed over the chest, and at his feet shoes and socks. She considered the arrangement for a moment, adjusting it here and there till the effigy was to her liking. Rico began to shiver uncontrollably.
Slowly and deliberately, she approached him, taking as she advanced a small pen from her pocket. Without speaking, she began to draw on his face, neck and chest, a pattern he could not make out.
“Your extremities are infected.”
“What? They are?” Rico wondered what ‘extremities’ were.
“Why do you think I burned you with the kettle?” What little warmth Rico had retained in his body drained swiftly into the cool soil below. He realised, with a wave of nausea, that he was dealing with someone infinitely more sophisticated than he had appreciated. He heard the sound of scissor blades and wondered momentarily where Naughty Rico was in his hour of need. Was he gone? Would he have to endure the real villain’s punishment himself?
Feeling her hands leave his body, Rico opened his eyes to see Alice placing the melon from the kitchen at the neck of his shirt, a bulbous, featureless head. Several locks of his hair were lain over it.
“I don’t think I can do this after all, Cousin Alice.” said Rico, his voice panicky, his own head lolling. “Please. I’m scared.”
There was no reply. From her pocket came matches. She lit one, and he took it with a shivering hand. For a second, he held it delicately over the ensemble, before Alice, with a sharp slap on the wrist, sent it fluttering down. They watched the body burn. For how long, he could not tell.
“Find a boulder”. Robotically he began to search, eventually finding one wedged under a soggy tree limb nearby.
“He must die. It’s time to kill him. You must kill naughty Rico!”
Holding the rock gave Rico renewed clarity. He considered the scene as if stumbling on it from outside and was truly frightened for the first time. Could one of them die without the other? He felt a rush of feeling pass through him, a connection to Naughty Rico he had never felt before. He was angry with him, he felt exploited and silly. He began to moan, a long, soft note that seemed to hang in the air around them, mingling with the fading smoke. The note broke rhythmically, fast staccato breaths that became a gnashing of teeth. Still holding the rock in both arms, he flailed and thrashed at nothing. Through sobs he scolded Naughty Rico, threatened him, cursed him. For the first time ever he truly fought the boy who was a part of him, and the boy fought back until neither of them had strength to go on. Around him a soft wind beckoned the brittle leaves into a shimmering drum roll.
“Do it, Rico.” Alice said. Her eyes were cold and blank and open. And then she began to chant. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”
“Why? Why are you doing this?” As he said the words, they were snatched from his lips by the wind.
Swinging the rock high over his head, Rico brought it down onto the melon. It smashed beautifully, bursting red blood and black seeds onto his face and feet. For a second, there was nothing.
“Perfect” Alice said. “Well done.”
With her cardigan round his shoulders, and her thick fingers wrapped round his, they wandered back towards the house, Rico’s charred trousers flapping crisply against his ankles. Rico concentrated on walking, fearing that if he did not he would crumble like a rotten thing. But it was with love that he held his guardian’s hand. Of that he was certain. With her free hand Alice ate the fruitcake in neat nibbles.
Back at the house, they did not talk. She washed the dust trailed with tears from his face, wiped his hands and found him new clothes. When it was finished, she allowed him a moment to speak. But the moment passed. They discovered Pauline and Mumsy in the dining room, dismembering the weekend’s papers in silence. A shabby box of mournful patterns sat discarded at their side. Rico dragged one of the twisted iron chairs from under the table, turned it to face away from them towards the window and sat delicately down.
“Hello you two” Pauline said. “You’ve been awfully long. Have you been having fun?”
“Has something happened?” said Mumsy. “Did Naughty Rico appear?”
“Yes, but he won’t be coming back” replied Alice, her eyes, like Rico’s, fixed on the black trees outside. “Margaret, I hope you don’t think me rude for saying this, but I think it’s a very bad idea talking about Naughty Rico as if he were a different person. Rico is one person, and it is time he took responsibility. I think you should stop now and never mention him again if you really want things to be improve.” For a moment, Mumsy considered her reply. She considered explaining all the methods she had tried, the times she had done as much before. But she was tired. And everything suddenly felt so unnecessary.
The little boy turned and looked at her. Mumsy felt herself wilting. “Let’s go home.”
“I’ll wave goodbye from the window” said Pauline.
Margaret drove them both home in silence. Rico fell instantly asleep, held carefully in place by his seat belt, his head drooping forward. Margaret fancied she saw a bald spot. So like the pope, she thought, giving in to liquid daydreams about bulletproof glass.