HORLA FICTION (October 2019)

FAIR WARNING – CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE

 

POLYCRATES

by Paul Murgatroyd

AS the driver unloaded the frail figure hunched over in the wheelchair, his booming voice ran on: ‘And last but not least is this senile old bugger – Peter Brown, who had a little fall last week, banged his head and started having hallucinations, thinks he’s fucking Napoleon or somebody – ha, the Napoleon of Cozy Cottage care home, that’s who you’ll be now, grandad, won’t you, and with any luck there’ll be a Josephine for you to fuck – if you can still get it up, and if her fanny isn’t too dried up. Spit on the end of your finger and rub her cunt with it, or else it’ll be: not tonight, Josephine. And after that you can sniff your finger and suck it. Worr! I’m getting a big hard-on just thinking about it. You dirty old bugger!…What’s up with you then? Finally run out of shite to spout? Normally this fucker’s got too much to say for himself, especially after that bang on the head. Crazy old cunt.’

Pete Brown slumped and stared at the ground in misery as he listened to this onslaught. Then he was wheeled through the drizzle to the home’s main entrance and jolted to a halt in front of a grinning carer named Bert, who had a wobbly beer-belly, a millipede moustache and the face of an inbred fen-dweller. As he grabbed the wheelchair, Bert revealed the words FUCK and OFF inked in on his scarred knuckles. He left his charge to shiver in the drizzle while he spoke to the driver: ‘Never mind the fucking moron, did you have a bet on that Philoctetes this afternoon? No? You stupid twat! I told you it’d win. Only romped home at 10-1, dinnit? I won fifty quid on that. Fifty fucking quid! I’ll be down the Butchers Arms tonight pissed out of my brain on that. And I’m gonna buy that Roxanne some shots and take her out the back and give her one up against the wall.’

‘You’re welcome to that. I wouldn’t touch Poxy Roxie with your dick, never mind mine. Our Jered swears blind he got crabs off her. Dirty bitch.’

 ‘Duh, just think of me tonight well pissed and knobbing her. While you nurse your half a pint of bitter, you fucking dickhead…Lord Jesus, turn this man into a tampax…Ooh, I forgot, you are one already, aren’t you, Yozzer? Hur hur.’

 ‘Oh up your arse with a wire brush!’ snarled the driver, and climbed back behind the wheel and drove off past the grey pebble-dashed houses that frowned down on both sides of the street.

As his wheelchair was crashed through the peeling front door, a tear ran down Pete’s cheek. The new owners were closing down one of their care homes and distributing its inmates among the other ten as part of their dynamic new strategy to enhance the care experience. As a result Pete had been parted from his only friend, who had been taken off to a different home. Pete had also been upset by all the upheaval, and had largely retreated into himself, occasionally peering out with scared eyes.

As it was a little after six PM, he was taken to the stuffy dining room, and his wheelchair was parked at a table of strangers, who ignored him, while Bert went off to have a smoke, pick his nose and play Civilization VI on his phone. One of the old ladies at the table let out a wailing fart. Nobody else seemed to notice. Pete did. To him it smelled as if a rat had died and begun rotting in her bowels. He stopped breathing through his nose until the stench passed.

The sticky table’s centre-piece was a pink plastic flower in a jam jar, flanked by salt and pepper pots and crusted bottles of HP and ketchup in a tinny sauce bottle holder. On the CD-player Max Bygraves sang one of his Greatest Hits, about an inane exchange between a blue and a pink toothbrush. The oldest residents joined in, quavering in a ghastly chorus. Pete winced and tried to close his ears to that. As the ancient songsters started humming when they could no longer remember the words, a plate was plonked down in front of him, containing singed oven chips and a child’s portion of cod with a sinister sheen. He couldn’t bring himself to eat anything. But, because he hadn’t been given a drink for hours, he did manage to force down half a mug of stewed tea.

Bert reappeared and shouted: ‘OK, cunt-face, time to go to your room and settle in.’

He wheeled Pete down a long grey corridor to the lift. At one point they passed the TV lounge, where one person was watching an episode of Border Security: Australia’s Front Line, in which a visitor for some reason was trying to smuggle into the country a half-eaten chicken sandwich in his suitcase. Finally they reached the lift. The sign on it said: ACCESS RESTRICTED TO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS, which made Pete shake his head. The lift wasn’t working. So Bert had to bump him backwards up the stairs to the first floor. At the far end of another grey corridor they reached Pete’s room. Oddly the number on the door was 522. Bert kicked the door open and pushed Pete in, impervious to the musty smell squatting within.

It was hard to fit the wheelchair in, as the room was almost entirely taken up by a sagging bed, a hobbit’s chest of drawers and a wastepaper bin. There was fluffy tumbleweed under the bed. Over it there was a painting of acid-green mountains and a Noddy-blue stream. The carpet looked like somebody had recently changed the oil in their motorbike on it.

Bert wrenched Pete out of the wheelchair, heaved him on to the bed and undressed him. Then he opened the chest of drawers and took out a nappy. As he began to change the blushing old man, a hoody on a motorbike roared past, followed almost immediately by a police car with its siren screaming. The din brought Pete fully out of himself and he started talking. It was inarticulate mumbling at first, but then he said: ‘The fish…um…couldn’t eat that…Not like the one the fisherman brought me…that day…’

‘What you on about, you stupid old bugger? Duh, this is sopping wet, you’ve pissed yourself, you dirty cunt. Hold still!’

Pete’s face went even redder. Then he sniffed and continued: ‘Said it was the biggest fish he’d ever caught…So, um, it was only right to present it to a great ruler like me.’

‘Great ruler? You? Oh yeah, I forgot, you’re Napoleon, aren’t you? Ha-ha.’

‘Not Napoleon. Polycrates.’

‘Not Napoleon?’ asked Bert, wrinkling his brow in perplexity.

‘No, Polycrates. Of Samos.’

‘Polly what? Think you’re a fucking parrot now? Could be, ‘cause you’re not a fucking person any more.’

‘No, I was Polycrates, in a past life. I wasn’t always an English teacher, living in a mundane little semi.’

‘Oh yeah, and I was the Queen of Sheba,’ bawled Bert, and smirked at his wit.

‘Had my seal-ring…’

‘You what? Hold still, you old bugger. Stop squirming! Or I’ll give you a belt. Christ, you’re a fucking nuisance, you are. Worse than a fucking kid.’

‘The fish had my seal-ring…It was gold…with a beautiful emerald…Um, my most precious possession.’

‘Oh aye?’ sneered Bert, tossing the soiled nappy into the wastepaper bin with a damp thud. ‘Shot! Where’d you get that then, cunty-balls? Gems TV for a fiver? Sure it wasn’t a paparazzi sapphire?’

‘Mastris – no, Amastris…he wrote to me…warned me about the jealousy of the gods…the danger of unbroken good fortune…told me to throw away the thing most precious to me, so it’d never be seen again amongst men…’

‘What the fucking hell are you drowning on about, you crazy old cunt?’

‘I sailed far out to sea and threw it overboard…But later the fisherman caught that fish, and when the cooks gutted it, they found the ring in its stomach.’

‘Duh, just as well. ‘Cause if they hadn’t found it, and you ate it, you’d have shit your ring later, wouldn’t you? Hur hur.’

Pete exhaled loudly in exasperation, then muttered: ‘I saw the hand of heaven in that, thought the gods wanted me to go on and on prospering…but I was wrong, of course.’

‘Of course you was. And never mind the hand of heaven, you’ll have my hands round your fucking throat if you don’t let me fasten this nappy up, Napoleon. Hey, no, I know, that’s it – I’ll call you Nappy for short from now on. Yeah – Nappy. How do you like that for a name then, Nappy?’

He was pleased to see from the way Pete’s lips tightened that he didn’t like the name. He continued: ‘Right, Nappy, all done. You’ll be OK now if something dire happens in your rear – know what I mean? And after that fucking fish, three days old, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did…Right, er, let’s get your jamies on, Nappy.’

Bert opened the plastic bag on the back of the wheelchair containing Pete’s possessions, took out the pajamas and put them on him. As he did so, Pete looked round the room. His pupils dilated as he took in the stained carpet, the yellowed lace curtains and the 40 watt bulb with no shade in the overhead light. Screwing his face up in confusion, he asked: ‘How have I come to this?’

Bert pulled the sheet up over him and said: ‘I pushed you here in your wheelchair, you fuckwit. Have you forgotten that already?’

‘No, I mean: how have I sunk so low? I was the ruler of Samos, had a vast fleet, hundreds – no, myriads of warriors, with bronze-cheeked javelins. I subjugated cites and islands.’

His eyes became bright with joy and wonder as he went on: ‘And my court…extraordinary, exquisite…civilization amid savagery…my palace of purple and gold…the Maidens’ inviolate garden…rose-crimson meadows and silvery streams…my Hera temple, with its pillars of moonlight…those evenings of languor and laughter, cushioned by Chios’ sublime wines…and those creatures of quick-winging dreams: silken-stepping page boys, the choir of holy-voiced, honey-tongued girls and –‘

‘Duh, they sound good for a blow job,’ said Bert with a leer. ‘Wouldn’t mind some honey tongue sucking my dick.’

The old man winced, but then went on, more animated and lucid as images flooded into his mind, making him gasp. ‘The craftsmen, the artists, the poets! The poets above all…Anacreon singing of violet-eyed nymphs and golden-haired Eros roaming over the soaring summits of mountains…”Eros’ dice are frenzies and frays” – that was his. An unusual metaphor, densely allusive – how people in love suffer serious mental disturbances, and get involved in struggles and fights, how Eros finds sport in that and plays with them, how random love is…They were great lovers, my poets – suave and sensuous, men of infinite charm and wit, who loved their beautiful darlings passionately and immortalized them in their verse…Anacreon, yes, and Ibycus, Ibycus with his lyre of fire. He sang: “Eros, his eyes meltingly fixed on me from under dark lids, is driving me with all kinds of enchantery into Aphrodite’s inescapable nets.” What a picture! Like the tree with all the birds in its uppermost leaves – long-winged halcyons and shypurpleshags and –‘

‘I like a good shag meself – know what I mean?’ put in Bert, smirking at his cleverness again.

Pete glared at him in contempt. Then he summoned up more of Ibycus’ lines, waved his hands about and said: ‘He likened Eros to the north wind ablaze with lightning and spoke of Him “rushing on me with shrivelling frenzies, black, impassible, forcefully, thoroughly mastering this heart of mine.” The bustling forcefulness there, the tumultuous mixture of imagery…’ He shook his head in admiration, and added: ‘And he compared me to the handsomest heroes at Troy and said –‘

‘Well, you’re not so fucking handsome now, are you, Nappy, what with your liver spots and various veins and piles?…Yozzer was right about you talking shite, and that’s enough of the shite for now. I’ve got to see to some other old fuckers, wipe their arses and all that, fucking shit job this is. But I’ll be back in an hour or so to get you off to sleep, with a sexy new carer – wonder what she’s like – who’s coming on the night shift in a bit. So you just settle down there and don’t go off subjurgating islands and things with all your ships and archers, hur hur.’

Bert left, slamming the door behind him. Pete lay back in his bed, sighing over lost glory and past splendour amid present-day drabness.

Bert was back a few minutes before eight o’clock with the new carer, a homely woman in her early thirties called Anne Duff. She was short and stocky, with dark eyes and hair, faint traces of a moustache which she waxed regularly and a mole on her chin which she couldn’t afford to have removed. It was her first day at the home, and she’d been told to come early, so she could find out about the residents, as she would have to do the night shift on her own. Pete was the last one that she met.

He was jolted out of his reveries by the clank as the trolley of drinks and medications halted outside his door. Bert barged in and said: ‘And this one’s Nappy. Daft old twat thinks he’s Napoleon or someone. Had a bang on the head, but he’s harmless really. Er, just come in today, another one from Happy Days.’

In the doorway Anne frowned and said quietly: ‘Don’t be rude, Bert. What’s the gentleman’s real name?’

Bert said: ‘Brown. Er, Pete Brown, I think. Why?’

She ignored that, gave Pete a warm smile and said: ‘I hope you’ll be very happy here, Mister Brown – or Pete, if I can call you that. I’m Anne. Pleased to meet you.’

As Pete reciprocated, she went over to the bed and shook his hand. Then she knelt down beside him and asked him if he was OK. When he nodded, she whispered: ‘I know how hard it must be for you, love, in a new place. It’s a big change, isn’t it, and you’ll have lost friends and people you knew in your old home. So won’t you let me be your friend? I’m new here too, and it’s all strange for me as well. I’ll do all I can for you. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it. We all have to do what we can for others in this life, don’t we? That’s what my mum used to say.’

Pete nodded again, appreciating the sympathy. She was charming, especially in contrast to the oaf. Actually she was a bit like Jen, dear darling Jen, who’d also been tender and caring, the best wife a man could wish for. God, he missed her, still felt incomplete without her…Why did she have to die?…But at least she was spared this dump, and all the humiliation of old age – losing respect and one’s dignity and –

‘Invaded any islands yet, fuckface?’ asked Bert,

Pete shook his head, scowling. Anne raised her eyebrows and said: ‘What’s that?’

Bert snickered. ‘This bugger thinks he was some sort of ruler in a past life, with a big navy and army. What was your name again, Nappy? Funny long name.’

‘Polycrates,’ said the old man in a firm voice.

Anne looked at him sharply, and then said: ‘ Really? Do you know, I think I’ve heard of him. On University Challenge. Or in one of my historical novels. Wasn’t he a king, or something like that? Right?’

‘I was the ruler of Samos, and other Greek islands, and –‘

‘Oh shit, not again,’ muttered Bert, rolling his eyes. ‘Cunt-hooks here –‘

‘Bert!’ snapped Anne. ‘Let him go on. This is fascinating. I want to hear more. I think I know his story. Go on, sweetheart. Never mind him. Tell me, love.’

Pete became animated when she showed interest, and said: ‘I had one hundred and fifty oared ships and one thousand archers, I was a great power in the area, a threat to the neighbouring Persians.’

‘Oh yeah right,’ said Anne. ‘But I think I heard Polycrates came to a bad end. Because he over-reached himself. Is that right, or have I got him confused with someone else?’

Pete said: ‘No. I planned to get mastery of the sea and all the islands and Ionia. The Persian governor Oroetes knew that, and tricked me…He was a cunning man, an arch deceiver…He pretended he’d discovered that his master, the Great King, intended to kill him, and offered me chests of gold to finance my plans if I’d sail across and spirit him away to safety on one of my ships. And I believed him. I was naïve, a fool to be taken in really, but the bastard was so eloquent and artful…’

Pete was becoming agitated and his hands were fluttering about. Anne grasped them and stilled them. Her grip was surprisingly strong. Then she turned them over and stroked the palms tenderly, smiling and murmuring: ‘There there, love, don’t get carried away.’

He calmed down a bit, and then said: ‘My daughter begged me not to go. She’d had a dream that I was aloft in the air, washed by Zeus and anointed by the Sun. She took that as a bad omen and warned me not to cross to Oroetes, pleaded with me not to go as I boarded the ship. But I wouldn’t listen. She was right; and I was wrong. My lovely daughter. I never saw her again. Thanks to that bastard.’

Anne said in a low voice: ‘How many times have people ignored warnings and omens? History repeats itself, they say, don’t they, and it’s true…So, what happened? But you needn’t go on, if you don’t want to. I know this is going to be painful for you. Don’t put yourself through it all over again. Just to gratify me. Really, love.’

‘No, I want to tell you, Anne,’ he said. He glared at Bert and added: ‘It’s nice that someone’s showing some interest and not just sneering at me.’

Bert grunted: ‘Well, if you weren’t such a stupid old twat –‘

‘Shut up, Bert!’ said Anne. ‘Don’t be such a sod! Let him speak…So, what happened next? I’m dying to know. Go on, love. If you want to.’

Pete went on, with tears in his eyes: ‘When we arrived there, Oroetes was really friendly and welcoming, kept on smiling – because he knew what he had in store for me… It was all an act, he was toying with me, amusing himself. He loved playing with words too. He said that to thank me he had a big surprise for me, something remarkable, that I’d never forget for as long as I lived. Then he led us into a truly sumptuous banquet, with the finest food and wine that I’ve ever tasted, served by the most magnificent slave girls, totally naked. But that wasn’t the surprise…When we were all drunk and off guard, he pounced. Brought his soldiers in and seized us –‘

Anne broke in, grimacing: ‘Sounds like a right sod. Like that Pat Phelan in Coronation street. Two-faced, sneaky –‘

‘Oh he was, Anne,’ said Pete, raising his voice in anger. ‘And not just sly and insidious – a sadistic sod too. He laughed and told me how much he’d enjoyed fooling me. And how he hated me with an undying hatred, because he’d been taunted endlessly by another Persian governor for not adding Samos to the Great King’s empire. Then he locked me in a black dungeon for a week. That was awful, but worse was to come. He dragged me out, cut off my eyelids and staked me out in the mid-day sun. It drove me half-mad, and –‘

‘Dear god, that’s terrible, terrible!’ cried Anne, shaking her head. ‘What a bloody savage!’

‘Oh, that’s not all, Anne,’ said Pete through taut lips. ‘He really was relentless in his hatred, obsessed. After a while he asked me if I’d rather not see the light of the sun any more. When I said Yes, he sounded sympathetic and said enough was enough and he’d fix that at once. He stopped me seeing the light of the sun by ending my life. He crucified me. On high. So my daughter’s dream came true: I was aloft in the air.’

He closed his eyes as he recalled his agony and Oroetes’ laughter.

Anne gasped, put a hand to her mouth and muttered: ‘Bloody hell, really? That’s barbaric. I can hardly believe it.’

‘Me neither,’ said Bert. Because it’s a load of shit, all made up. Crucified! As if!’

As Pete’s face crumpled, Anne barked: ‘Bert! Shut up!’ Then, pointing a finger at him, she said: ‘Don’t you talk about things you know nothing about! People were crucified in those days. I saw it on the History Channel. And Jesus, of course.’

‘Duh, past life my arse. What a load of bollocks.’

‘Oh aye?’ said Anne. ‘And what would you know about it, Einstein? Big expert, are you, on reincarnation? Researched it on the Internet? Like I have? The Buddhists believe in it. Lots of people believe in it.’

‘More fucking fool them.’

‘Oh aye? Well I believe in it too.’

‘You what?’

‘I know for a fact that reincarnation is true. Because I had a past life myself.’

Not thinking that he might offend her, Bert cackled and shouted: ‘Go on, pull the other one, it’s got bells on. Do you think I’m stupid?’

Anne snorted and said: ‘Well, it did cross my mind, just for a second or two…No, I’ve got blurred memories, little slices of a past life, and I have dreams and flashbacks too. I know I’ve lived before, I’m absolutely certain. I wasn’t always just a carer. I was somebody then. Grander than now. You’d be surprised.’

‘Who?’

With a gleam of amusement in her eyes she said: ‘I really can’t say. Wouldn’t like to commit myself.’

‘Oh aye? Go on – who?’

‘I’m not telling you. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.’

‘Bollocks. I’ve never heard of such a thing.’

‘Yes, well, you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Bert, haven’t you? It’s something outside your experience. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. How much do you know about things really? You don’t strike me as a very knowledgeable person, Bert, some kind of expert on spiritual matters. Or anything else.’

Bert was hurt. ‘Hey, there’s no need to be –‘

‘Sorry, Bert. But just leave Pete alone, all right? Stop tormenting him. And you’re calling me a liar as well as him, because I’m on his side, I believe in it too.’

‘Well I was just –‘

Anne said in a softer voice: ‘Look, Bert, you’re at the end of your shift. There’s no need for you to hang around. I’ve got the picture here, I’ve got it taped, I’ll be fine. Why don’t you go off to the pub and celebrate your big win on the gee-gees? Go and get hammered, go and enjoy yourself. Go on, off you toddle.’

Bert looked at his watch. ‘Duh, OK. It is after eight, and I could do with a pint. Or ten. Know what I mean?’

When Bert left, Pete mouthed his thanks to Anne, feeling even closer to her now. She chuckled and said: ‘Never mind him! He’s just cross because I wouldn’t go to see a film with him when he asked me. The way he eyes me, I know what lonely losers like him are like – he’d be eating my face, hands all over me, and I’d never get to see anything of the film. I’m not that desperate. Yet.’ She laughed, and then said: ‘Now then, sweetheart, do you need anything? How about the toilet? Empty-out wee before you go to sleep?’

When he nodded, she gently lifted him out of bed and into his wheelchair, pushed him down the corridor, sat him on the lavatory and waited while he urinated, with her head turned away to give him privacy. Then she wheeled him back to his room and settled him down in bed. She cocked her head, gave him a big smile and said: ‘You’re going to find it a bit hard to get to sleep tonight, aren’t you, love, what with all the upheaval and that sod winding you up? Well, you don’t need to worry about that. Just hang on, I’ll be back in a sec with something to help you off to the land of nod.’

She went to the trolley and returned with a mug of warm cocoa and a sleeping pill. When he’d finished the drink, she grinned at him and said: ‘There now, you have a good long sleep. Sweet dreams, love. And don’t worry: I’ll be back later to see to you, check on how you’re doing…Just ignore Bert. You’re a very interesting man, and I’m very lucky to have met you like this. It’s a pleasure to meet somebody else who remembers their past life. I’ll tell you all about mine tomorrow. I don’t mind telling you about it, because I know you’ll believe me.’

At the door she winked at him and waved, then switched the light off and shut the door behind her. Before he fell asleep Pete lay there in the dark thinking: Anne really was lovely, and he felt a real connection with her; maybe he’d be able to cope with the new home after all, with her around to look after him and protect him. Then he started speaking quietly to his wife, as he did every night, telling her about the move, and about Anne, who he was sure would turn out to be like the daughter they’d always wanted.

When the next shift of carers arrived in the morning, Anne Duff was not at the main desk. The home’s big toolbox was there instead. They searched for her everywhere, without success. When they finally reached Pete’s room, they found him inside, dead. His mouth was taped shut, his eyelids had been sliced off and he was hanging from the top of the door, with nails through his palms, and with a note stapled to his chest saying HERE WE GO AGAIN HA-HA.

***

PAUL MURGATROYD had a long career as a university lecturer in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, language and mythology in particular) and was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. He is the author of Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006).

Towards the end of his career he started writing novels and short stories at weekends, and since retirement has had more time to devote to his fiction. (His poetry has appeared in various periodicals.)

His stories Lies and  Lest We Forget can also be found here at Horla (via our search engine at the top of the home page).