Short story – The Packet
Gooch gunned the engine. The gearstick trembled, rattling loose change in the door. The heater was on full so the car stank of onion sweat and singed hair.
‘We need a body,’ Gooch said.
He veered right, sending a jet of brown gutter water spattering against a bus shelter.
‘What’s the rush?’
‘We’re paid to lock people up.’
Gooch’s palm rubbed against his jaw. He was pink-skinned, bristled or bald. He licked a fingertip, preening his fuse-wire moustache. He couldn’t resist a glance in the mirror.
‘This, sunshine, is the real world.’
Blake’s throat was hoarse and his guts were growling from eating too many lozenges. Gooch had cracked that old line about sucking a fisherman’s friend three times already. Blake stared out at the glinting pavement. Hawthorn and privet sparkled in the hoar frost.
‘This sunshine is the real world,’ Blake said. ‘That’d make a good motto. Set it in a decent bit of scrollwork and you could put that on the Force crest.’
Gooch crunched on a mint. ‘You think you’re clever, don’t you?’
Milk sloshed in his belly
Blake’s stomach churned. Night turn always upset his guts. He couldn’t hack cornflakes at teatime – the milk sloshed in his belly for hours – and wouldn’t scoff pie and mash for breakfast. Gooch was a bin. He ate the things seagulls and foxes wouldn’t touch. Gooch farted noisily. His shirt tugged free as he shuffled in the seat exposing a white tyre of flesh, striated where his utility belt had fought a losing battle with kebabs and Big Macs. He shuffled and wafted his gas with an open palm.
‘Do you have to?’
‘Share and share alike,’ Gooch said.
Blake cracked the window an inch, making sure to mouth-breath the way he did round corpses. It made little difference. An icy blast brought blood to his cheeks and made him blink and shiver. The thermometer hadn’t finished falling.
‘It smells like something’s died in here.’
Gooch lit a fag.
‘No, I don’t mind,’ Blake said.
Gooch puffed grey smoke into the car’s frigid interior. ‘Do you ever stop moaning?’ he said. ‘Why do you do this job anyway?’
Blake prayed for calls, guilty he was wishing tragedies on people he’d never met. Being busy meant he didn’t have time to think. They’d had run for the first call of the night, buttoning shirts and clipping belts. The call was a threatened suicide called Mandy Fyfe who’d had a change of heart. Blake hadn’t drunk his coffee but didn’t blame her. He made an elaborate ritual out of coffee-making – ethically produced rainforest friendly beans and all that – because he knew it irritated the hell out of Gooch. Coffee was a heaped spoon of instant, three sugars and a dash of UHT for Gooch, most of it getting tangled up in that guardsman’s moustache.
Mandy Fyfe’s old man had walked out leaving her with five screaming kids, walls glistening with damp and Christmas to pay for. She was slumped against the sink cupboard, slugging discount vodka, wondering how she’d fetched up on the Meadows estate. Her mascara had run, her lipstick was smeared. Gooch leered at her.
‘Big girl, isn’t she? She wasn’t last in the queue when they were handing them out.’
‘She’ll hear you,’ Blake hissed.
Blake told her to put the knife down. It was little more than an apple-corer. She’d barely drawn blood, scratching at her wrists. He chucked her a towel, told her to cover up. She clutched it to her chest and started to sob.
‘Trust you to spoil the view,’ Gooch hissed.
‘Shut up, she can hear you.’
Gooch’s knees cracked as he crouched down. He held out a palm, but she wasn’t ready to give up the knife.
‘You weren’t serious, were you doll? It was just a cry for help, wasn’t it? We all need someone to listen to now and again.’
She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand. Her brain felt like a pin cushion. Gooch nodded at Blake. ‘I have to listen to bloody Dickens here all bloody night.’
Blake’s degree was chemistry, but Gooch didn’t know any scientists so Dickens it was.
‘What about the kids?’ Blake said.
Gooch nodded. ‘Have you got someone we can call, petal?’
She pointed to a cork noticeboard propped behind the microwave. It was littered with special offers cut from cereal packs and supermarket vouchers.
‘My sister Carol,’ she said.
Blake sat her down and called Carol while Gooch made sweet, milky tea. He put the knife away.
‘You keep waiting but it makes no difference,’ Mandy said.
‘I know petal.’
She slumped forward, dribbling on Gooch’s shirt.
‘You keep hoping something’s going to change,’ she said.
Carol answered second ring. Blake wondered what she was doing sitting by a phone at three am. He lowered his voice.
‘No, she’s fine. Yeah, it’ll be OK. It’s the kids, see.’
Staring at the striplight
Blake cupped the phone and kept glancing back from the hall, checking Mandy was out of earshot. Her head lolled back and she was staring at the strip-light on the ceiling. Gooch was filling his pockets with chocolate digestives. Blake coughed loudly and Gooch gave his best ‘What me?’ expression. Soon after, a taxi chugged at the kerb. Carol, barely out of her teens, stepped out of the cab shivering in a white denim jacket.
‘Would you?’ Gooch said.
Blake bit his lip. ‘She’s maybe seventeen.’
‘Better than big sis,’ Gooch said. ‘After five kids you wouldn’t touch the sides.’
Gooch hitched up his trousers. He went and sat in the car, taking the blast of the heater full in his face. Carol gnawed at a thumbnail, oblivious to the cold. Her veins were bluish, she had skin like marble. Three kids sat sobbing on the stairs asking what was wrong with mummy. The youngest cried in its cot. Gooch smoked, feet on the dash. He rapped the car horn, making curtains twitch and bringing faces to bedroom windows over the road.
‘Come on bleeding heart. We’re not social bloody services,’ Gooch called.
Blake gave her an apologetic smile. Carol thanked him and that made him feel worse. In the rush he hadn’t grabbed a coat or a sweater. There was nothing but a crisp, starched shirt between him and February.
‘Not even a body in it,’ Gooch said, sighing.
‘It’s all part of the job, though.’
‘Shut the window.’
‘Not a chance.’
‘It’s a good job I’m a thief-catcher,’ Gooch said, eyes like slits.
Blake radioed in, unused to silent airwaves. Control said they could get their grub. Bravo-Mike 3 were dealing with a drunk, the others had brought prisoners.
‘We’re bringing up the rear again,’ Gooch sniffed. ‘You’re cramping my style.’
Gooch pulled off the ring road, scattering gravel where the brickworks had once stood. A battered caravan with a smoking chimney stood among the litter and thistles. Sally was frying eggs and burgers on a hotplate. Sally Snacks, they called her. She spelled snacks with an X, the words stuck on the caravan in sparkly letters.
‘Are you eating or not?’ he said to Blake.