The castle is secured. On bartizans and battlements, cameras keep watch. At the gatehouse, dangerous men, legitimised by ear pieces, stand and smoke. In the Great Hall, beneath shimmering musgravite, guests dine at tables carved from angel oak, on chairs upholstered with skins imported after dark. Their chins drip with extinction as naked musicians play between tapestries woven from stone.
Julia Forbes, 2nd Pata, wife of 4th Pata Leopold, picks her way between serving staff and climbs onto stage.
“Ladies and gentleman, please,” she says, dipping toward the mic.
Cutlery and conversations drop. The room erupts in applause.
Julia bows her head and lowers her palms.
“And so we reach the climax of the evening, the true reason we are gathered here tonight, the Auction…”
A Murmur spreads through the room.
“The money raised tonight will finance the construction of a new Ninyput shelter. It will also provide essential funding for existing Projects: the orphanage, the drop-in centres, the out-reach programmes.
Dear Patas, I implore you, dig deep, dig deep so we might realise all our dreams.”
As she talks, two workmen in brown overcoats approach the stage. One carries a silver cloche, the other pushes a cage covered in furs.
“Ladies and Gentleman, please show your appreciation to Pata Montgomery Clove, creator of our first two lots…”
Montgomery—bursting from vaquita skins and corked by tarboosh—stands and accepts the applause.
“…And to the donors: Ninyput David from Croydon and Ninyput Justin from Deptford. David and Justin are both long time unemployed and both have struggled with addiction their entire lives.
But now, dear Patas, both are presented as rehabilitated and gainfully employed.”
Julia plucks out the microphone and steps down from the stage.
“Imagine, if you will,” she whispers, “taking a knife in your hand, the same hand that pets your dog, the same hand that pleasures your lover and driving that knife into living flesh, into the very mechanics of life. Let’s be honest, we’ve all wanted to…”
“I have,” shouts one of the guests.
“…Me too,” says Julia, nodding vigorously, “but here’s the thing: you’re no psychopath, you’re no lunatic. Plus, you have a cast iron respect for the law. So what do you do? I’ll tell you what you do. You buy Stabaman is what you do…”
The workman whips away furs and the room falls silent. Justin hangs within the cage, his limbs severed, his chest saturated with tears streaming from beneath an iron branks.
“…Stabaman is strong…” says Julia, pushing her arm through bars and dragging a fingernail down Justin’s torso, “…Stabaman is brave, and what’s more, Stabaman will withstand over 240 puncture wounds before finally expiring. Simply hang him up and off you go.”
Julia throws up her hands and the room rocks with noise. She motions again for silence.
“So ladies and gentleman, now it’s your turn. For Stabaman, who will start me at one million?”
A flurry of hands shoot into the air.
The only thing worse than waking up inside a cardboard box, is waking up inside a cardboard Box naked, with no phone, no wallet and no idea how you got there.
Douglas convulses in the darkness and the box gives. The cold hits him like wet bells. He lays flat out, squirming in black snow beside a lonely country lane.
He remembers nothing. No, he remembers his name. Douglas, yes, Douglas, Douglas the piss head. Douglas, son of Gerald. Gerald the bastard. Always food on the table, but quick with his fists was Gerald
What else. What else.
It was morning, still dark. He’d found wine and drained it. He’d needed more. The need had him out before his lips were dry. He’d bought cans at the local supermarket and walked to the park opposite the railway arches.
He remembers throwing the last one into the empty pond.
He hasn’t left the city in years and now the city is gone. He recognises nothing: black fields to his right, woods to his left. He tries to run, but his body won’t respond. He feels pain and looks down. His big toes, both snapped into right angles, stare back. The shock is phosphorous. He opens his mouth and his stomach hits the road.
Still retching, he crawls toward trees. The cold is astounding. The wind screams in his face. He knows he is dying; bits of him are starting to blank out. He reaches a gully and descends into cover.
He pulls himself from tree to tree, away from the wind raging at the forest’s edge. It is peaceful beneath the canopy and a gentle rain begins to fall. He wants to believe he is safe but senses intent in the stillness. He tries to remain strong but thinks of his mother; how he watched her room fill with tumblers of water as she rolled beneath sheets like a salted slug. He remembers sipping from one, how his stomach turned to marbles and glue just before Gerald punched the glass from his hand.
Douglas moves on, deeper into the green gloom. He finds a blue tarp half buried in mud, pulls it free and wraps it around his shoulders.
A little further on, he finds a single boot hanging from a low bough; wedged in the hollow beneath, he finds its pair.
He tries to pull them on, but the pain—rendered more ineffable by its pedigree—is unbearable. He remembers falling as a child; his ankle sounding off like a shotgun shell. He’d limped home and found Gerald in the garage grinding numbers of a stolen Ford Capri. Seeings his tears, Gerald had lifted him up, secured the ankle in a bench vice and set it straight with one good swing of his lump hammer.
Douglas knows what he must do. He leans against a tree trunk, grips it hard and kicks. A crack ricochets through the silence and he howls into the canopy.
He steadies himself and kicks again. The canopy spins above him and he passes out.
Douglas comes to on his back, he feels down and finds his toes in place. He grabs the boots, pulls them on and makes his way back toward the road. His spirits lift: the boots bring hope. Perhaps now he can find help before the cold levels him for good.
“Our second lot tonight, ladies and gentleman, is just perfect for anyone who loves a good squeeze and yes Theadora, I’m looking at you.”
Julia points at an emaciated woman encased in an alligator trouser suit.
Theadora laughs and flips her the finger.
“Noble Patas, may I present Skinball, the perfect antidote to clear skin…”
With a flourish, the workman lifts the cloche to reveal what remains of David. He rests on melted wax and dwale, his features accentuated with Indian licorice and pike scales, his ears pierced with hornets that saw and claw at swollen lobes, seething to be free. The workman flicks a temple and David’s eyes snap open. He starts to scream and the lid is forced down hard.
“Skinball,” continues Julia, “is 24 layers of top grade, laboratory cultivated epidermis, grafted around a living, breathing human head. Simply smear Skinball with grease, leave somewhere warm and dry and, come the morning, he’ll be smothered in all manner of pustule eruptions just begging to be squeezed. When a layer becomes mutilated beyond repair, simply scrape it away to reveal a new one. Hours and hours of fun.”
“So ladies and gentleman, I implore you: bid as our pledge demands. For Skinball, who will start me at five million?”
Douglas finds he can walk well and picks up his pace. As he rounds a corner, the forest falls away and ragged fields turn to soft, mown lawns. In the distance, he sees a shape jutting roughly into the dead, grey sky. As he gets closer, a grand old house rises up before him.
He reaches an impromptu carpark filled with the types of cars he’s only seen before in magazines. Up ahead, two security guards stand beneath an iron portcullis. He looks down at himself, at the naked flesh smeared in filth and knows he can’t approach. He needs to get inside, find a phone and call for help.
Douglas darts left and hits a wall. He moves along ashlar until he reaches formal gardens. He falls flat, sliding beneath topiary, following a narrow pathway.
He comes to a crow-stepped clock tower and hears activity; the sounds of cooking and cutlery. He sees a young woman smoking against the wall. She reminds him of someone he once knew, someone he let down, someone he’ll never see again. He wants to trust her. He calls to her. She sees him and hurries over.
“Help me please. Help me,” he says, collapsing at her feet.
“You can’t be here,” she says, “they won’t like it.”
She pulls him to his feet. Leads him quickly inside, past the kitchen to a narrow corridor. She lifts a cloth covering a wheeled trolley.
“Under here, I’ll come back for you. When it’s safe.”
Douglas crawls inside and pulls up his knees.
“I’ll be back,” she says again.
He doesn’t question her, he doesn’t have the strength. A dry heat radiates from the kitchen and the clock tower’s thonk echos along panelled walls. An hour passes. He barely breathes. He tries to fight it, but he’s never felt more exhausted; he places a hand beneath his head and falls fast asleep.
When Douglas wakes, the trolley is moving. He curls up and covers his head. It stops suddenly. He hears heavy metal turning. It moves on, then stops again.
Douglas senses he is in a very different place.
He peers out. There are many people. A woman is speaking on stage.
“And so we come to our final lot.”
“This years meat has been chilled and adrenalised and will be prepared and served at your table by world-renowned Ninyput Itamae, Chef Dunbar. The meat this evening is donated by Ninyput Douglas, who, if I’m informed correctly, is currently hiding beneath the cake trolley”
The young woman tears away the cloth. The entire room turns.
The guests stand and begin to chant. Julia raises her arms. The musicians increase their tempo. The trolley tips and Douglas falls to the floor. He hears knives above him and looks up to see his father striding toward him, looking younger and happier than he can ever remember.
Douglas reaches out, and Gerald lifts him up.