VINTAGE GEMS Rachel Trezise

NWR Issue 100

Boa Constrictor

Today I feel as though I've known Alun Richards my entire life, though I never met him. I was a published writer before I’d read him. And then, all at once, I seemed to know his work completely, because his Wales, like mine, was outward looking, rich with the influence of immigrants, non-Welsh speaking. He rejected ‘a romanticised Welsh past of myth’. He was concerned with rugby, beauty queens, industrial and spiritual decline. For an idea about the man himself, I went to his autobiography, Days of Absence, an extract of which is included in Dai Country, a selection of Richards’ writing published under the Library of Wales umbrella in 2009, its cover graced with a photograph of a young Tom Jones smoking a cigarette, long and thick as a wooden dowel.

I was struck by Richards’ childhood fascination with Ponty market, hooked when he said he went there looking for the face of his absent father (like Richards, I grew up without my father and always seemed to be looking, yearning, for something, though I didn’t know what it was.) What he found instead was Banjo, a market salesman in a white Stetson and sheepskin chaps carrying a six-gun holster with which he sometimes fired blanks to attract crowds, who spoke with a large and confident south Walian voice syruped with a faint American inflexion. He carried the Deputy Sheriff badge of Montana and had a crumbling parchment to prove it; said he learned medicine from Seminole Indians in the States. ‘All of it,’ Richards says, ‘so unlikely as to suggest a spoof on my part. But it is not and you have to see him as I saw him on that day and later, half illuminated by the flickering blue light of a solitary naptha flame in a copper bowl, a relic from the previous decade, a hoarse-voiced and earnest figure in a place of shadows and mysteries.’ And this, in contrast to how he saw him only one year later: ‘tired at the fag end of the day... partially concealing himself... [pouring] his elixir down the drain... even- tually wandering off moodily into the night, six-gun, Stetson and chaps having long disappeared in the hard weeks before.’

Immediately I started to think about how often my perceptions of things and of people change so quickly from the exotic to the prosaic, and of that painful moment when the curtains part to reveal the less appeal- ing truth. Maybe it’s a habit of us dreamers and yearners to project our own desires onto others, to want them to live up to our expectations, and maybe in a world so dominated by social media, where people can put their best foot forward without really revealing anything of themselves, we are all bound for disappointment. It’s not exoticism that Mandy, the protagonist in ‘Boa Constrictor’ conjures, but menace, and the story is set not in Ponty market, though a market features briefly, but on a housing estate a few miles away in the Rhondda Valley.

- Rachel Trezise

Boa Constrictor

Teardrops of dew clung to the fiddlehead ferns, the forest floor was moist and earthy-smelling. Katie chose a clearing close to the entrance to do it; it wasn’t light yet and she didn’t trust him. Through the trees she could still see the outline of the pub at the edge of the estate; she could still call for help. The bottle top blew a raspberry as Chris squeezed the first glob of ketchup into his trembling hand, its vinegary tang biting. She giggled as she perched on the edge of a rock, shivering in her white T-shirt. He stooped to set the bottle against a clump of grass.

‘Here,’ he said gesturing with his open hand at the area where the sauce was to be smeared. She leaned back, propping her fists in the cold dirt. He started low, lightly massaging the scarlet gloop into the cotton, her ribs hard and knobbly under his palms. She flinched when his fingertips began to jab at the small fatty globes of her breasts. ‘I have to do it,’ he said, pausing briefly. He didn’t think she’d be so timid. At school she’d been ruthless, game for anything; provoking the literacy teacher until he frothed at the mouth. With a sigh she brushed her hair over shoulders, grudgingly offering her chest. He slapped a wad of the relish over her heart. She almost slipped off the rock, losing her balance as he kneaded at her roughly.

‘Fuck off,’ she bawled, slapping at him. ‘You’re enjoying it too much.’ She was conscious about that part of her body. And it was freezing; her nipples erect. She grabbed the bottle from him, squirting a thick stream of the liquid across the T-shirt, rubbing it unceremoniously into her chest.

From the rucksack Chris pulled a moth-eaten paisley-print scarf, then the boning knife with its worn, wooden handle. They caught each other’s eyes for a second, making their silent pact, Katie swallowing hard before she took the scarf into her mouth and leaned forward, letting him tie it at the base of her skull. She lay down flat on the gravel. Gently he wedged the knife into the gap between her torso and upper arm, the tip planted deep into the ground. He rearranged her, pushing her elbow into her side until it appeared the knife was plunged into her body. He stepped away, taking her in; from a distance, and with one eye closed, it looked real enough. He filched the phone from his pocket and took the picture. As she heard its exaggerated shutter sound she sprung up onto her hands, gasping for breath as if she’d been trapped underwater.

‘I told you I wouldn’t kill you,’ he said, bumping into her jokingly as they ambled out of the forest. It was Monday morning; the clouds dispersing, the sun rising over Blaenllechau Mountain. Katie framed the scene in her thumb and forefinger. It looked momentarily as though the sun was balanced in her hand. ‘Get rid of the T-shirt,’ he told her. ‘You’ve got to lie low for a while. I’ll meet you on Wednesday, when it’s safe, when the coast is clear.’

Katie was compelled to fold her arms, the ketchup squelching against her goose-pimpled skin, the stench of it rising anew.

‘You’d better meet me,’ she said.

‘I’ll meet you,’ he assured her. ‘On the steps behind K&K’s.’

[PAGE 2]

On Thursday, four days earlier, Mandy’d been pegging washing on her rotary line in Heol-y-Graig when her neighbour, chunky Lynn arrived home, a shoebox jammed under her armpit.

‘Have a guess what this is,’ she said, lifting the box over the slatted fence for Mandy to see. The torn cardboard was held together with an elastic band, the plain packaging refusing to divulge its contents. ‘Dead mice,’ Lynn said, not waiting for an answer. ‘Feller on Heol Mair sells them.’ Nodding at her teenage daughter’s window, she said, ‘She’s only gone and got a snake, one of them boa constrictors. It’s all it’ll eat, is dead mice. I said, “Why can’t it eat dog food, you know? Something we can pick up at K&K’s?”’ As chunky Lynn blathered, Mandy felt something round and hard nestled in the pocket of her husband’s wet jeans. She prised it out: a silver hoop earring, its row of glass rhinestones reflecting the harsh spring sun. The thought of the reptile, or the thought of the earring, she wasn’t sure which – maybe both – brought on one of her hot flushes, her temples firing like an element in a kettle.

In the bathroom cabinet she found her sage capsules. With a splash of water from the tap she swallowed a couple then laid down on her side of the bed, not bothering to keep check on the window should some kids come and steal her husband’s Diesel jeans, which they often did. ‘Not again,’ was all she could think. Since before their wedding her old man had always had some bit or other on the side. He went through mistresses quicker than beer turns to piss. Their life together had been plagued with mystery phone calls, credit card bills for overnight stays at the Travelodge on Atlantic Wharf, unidentified perfume and lipstick-stained handkerchiefs, every cliché going. But he promised her that after their son had moved out he’d stop, that this would be their time. Simon had started university in Liverpool in September, seven months ago. And already he was at it.

An hour into her shift at the pub that afternoon, Mandy was emptying the dishwasher when one of the wasters, a skinhead in a puffer jacket from the Tyntyla flats came in hawking knock-off gammon steaks.

‘Any cheap meat?’ he chirped as he weaved through the cabaret-style tables, plastic bag clasped in his fist. A fully formed image of the adulteress flickered in her mind’s eye: a nineteen-year-old blonde piece. She’d seen her here at the bar, sweet-talking the old fellers into lending her taxi money, a bottle of lime schnapps pressed to her mouth, the rhinestones in those earrings twinkling.

‘Not so fast, sunshine,’ she said to the boy, advancing quickly to the other side of the bar. She forced her arm through his, expecting to have to frogmarch him.

‘Sorry, Mrs,’ he said, acting dumb, moving compliantly with her towards the door. As she let go, shoving him outside, he asked her, ‘Anything I can get for you, Mrs? I shoplift to order, you know.’

She kicked a cluster of cigarette butts away from the threshold.

‘Nothing you can do for me, sunshine,’ she said. ‘Unless you know of a good hatchet man willing to kill a floozy.’ She’d meant it as a quip. They were easier to deal with when she softened them with humour. But the boy took it seriously, flexing his skinny and strangely bruised arms.

‘I know someone,’ he said, whispering conspiratorially. ‘No sweat, Mrs. Who’d you want doing?’

Then Mandy thought of her cash, hidden in a miniature cereal box at the back of the kitchen cupboard. She’d earned it working as an informant for South Wales Police. She heard a lot of stories working behind the bar and some of them were true. Gossip could be money, money she kept in case he ever did leave her for one of his fancy women.

Now, early on Monday morning, Mandy was at her Heol-y-Graig front door, seeing her husband off to work, a coffee mug in each hand.

‘Are you sure you’re OK?’ he asked her again. ‘You look terribly pale.’

‘It’s the night sweats,’ she said. ‘I haven’t slept properly for days.’

He nodded as he crouched to get into his van. Mandy noticed chunky Lynn’s shadow moving around behind the glass panel of her front door. Assuming she was about to emerge, Mandy went inside and stamped the mugs on the draining board. She made a tuna mayo sandwich for herself for lunch, but couldn’t eat it. She left for the pub half an hour earlier than usual and took a different route, sidling past the zinc youth centre, turning left at the unified church and arriving at the industrial-sized bins at the back of the pub. The boy was waiting for her, standing hunched in the old partly bricked-up doorway. As she neared him he took his phone out of his pocket and played with it, pressing on its various buttons.

‘Here’s the proof,’ he said, holding the screen up for her to look at. His hand was shaking like a cat shitting a peach seed, the image blurred from it. But she could see the blood and the knife, and the girl with a gag in her mouth. She vomited suddenly, a half-digested sage capsule inside a torrent of spit.

‘I did a good job, buried the body and everything,’ he said.

‘Thanks,’ Mandy said, voice sullen. She reached into her handbag, the money feeling cool against her clammy hands. ‘Thanks,’ she said again, her voice breaking as she handed it over.

[PAGE 3]

Early on Wednesday evening, on the concrete steps behind K&K’s, Chris plucked the money out of his sock, presenting it proudly to Katie. She gasped then jumped up and down on the spot a few times before cupping her modest breasts. Finally she was going to get her implants, and from the pocket of the only man who’d ever rejected her, the man who’d told her that she wasn’t his type, who’d wrestled her to the ground when she’d tried to kiss him, who’d called her ‘fried-egg titties’ over his shoulder as he’d left her there and marched away. This’d teach him.

‘You don’t need plastic surgery,’ Chris said as he passed his can to her.

‘Don’t you start now,’ she said. ‘I’ve made my mind up, you can’t change it.’ As she took the can she noticed he’d stopped jittering, his movements were calm and sleek. He draped his arm around her shoulder, protecting her from the hurried footsteps of a passer-by.

‘You’re gorgeous as you are,’ he told her. ‘You knows you’re gorgeous, Kate.’

Mandy, having finished her shift at the pub, resolved to cook her husband’s favourite meal: broccoli and salmon bake. At first she couldn’t concentrate enough to complete the simplest tasks. The till had been down yesterday and the last thing she’d wanted to do when she got home was pull a paring knife from the block. She’d ordered Indian meals from the takeaway menus pinned to the cork board. But there’d been no news of the girl. Nobody’d reported her missing. Perhaps they never would. The salmon would have to come from the freezer but she’d try to buy the broccoli fresh, from the outdoor market behind K&K’s. The veg man was about to pack up when she got there. She pointed out the wilted florets left on the AstroTurf lining of the stall. While he bagged them up she smiled to herself, remembering her husband’s disap- pointed demeanour when he’d returned from poker last night. He said he’d lost a small fortune; she suspected he’d been looking for the girl. Of a sudden she heard a burst of laughter from behind the shop. She turned to see the skinhead and the blonde piece sat down cuddling on the concrete steps. Leaving her broccoli at the stall she approached them, confused and benumbed, her hands pressed to her crown. ‘Who did he kill?’ she asked herself, assuming initially that he’d mistaken the target; killed the wrong girl.

Chris threw the money into Katie’s lap.

‘Scarper,’ he barked at her and she ran bouncing up the steps, the notes bundled in the hem of her T-shirt.

‘Who did you kill?’ Mandy asked out loud as she reached him, though she realised now he’d killed no one. He stood up, raising his arms in an apologetic gesture.

‘I couldn’t kill no-one, Mrs,’ he whimpered. Maybe he could have killed someone with ketamine powder and a flex, the way he’d seen it done once in a low-budget horror film, but not Katie who as a ten-year-old had led him to the junior school sandpit and sold him a five-second peek of her pink muff for the price of a Curly Wurly. Her ‘rosebud’ as she’d called it. And who he’d been in love with ever since.

‘I want my money back,’ Mandy said.

He rolled his sleeves up, revealing fresh needle-marks. ‘Can’t, Mrs,’ he said.

‘It’s all gone, see.’ Mandy took her phone from her handbag and quick-dialled Phillip Ronson, her detective inspector contact at South Wales Police.

‘You won’t believe what’s happened,’ she said when he picked up, turning out of the path of the wind to hear better. ‘You will not believe what some cheeky scammer’s done to me.’

Early on Thursday morning after Mandy had been charged with the crime of issuing a death threat, Ronson met her at the reception desk to give her a lift home. He shook his head as he caught sight of her.

‘Did you really not notice the knife was jammed in her armpit? Or that the blood didn’t look realistic? It’s preposterous, Amanda. I thought you were an asset to us.’ He snorted, almost breaking into laughter. ‘It’s comical.’

‘What’ll happen to them?’ she asked.

He stopped and opened the passenger door of a marked patrol car, not the plain Alfa Romeo he used daily. Mandy grimaced but got in, biting down on her lip.

‘We’ll try to get them on extortion,’ he said, gathering his seatbelt. ‘Not likely, though. And since you have no receipt for that money, no evidence of ever acquiring it, it’s doubtful you’ll get any recompense.’ A crowd had gathered on the path outside her Heol-y-Graig house. Ronson locked the car and began walking with her to the front door. As they neared it, Mandy noticed a teenage boy wearing an oversized pair of Diesel jeans, leaning on her railings.

‘You took them from my line,’ she accused him.

The boy sneered at her. ‘What’re you going to do about it? Have me killed?’ Chunky Lynn cackled at that.

‘And she’s harbouring an exotic, illegal animal,’ Mandy spat, pointing at Lynn. ‘You’re barred from keeping animals. Last dog you had attacked the postman, ripped a chunk out of his leg.’

‘The snake’s been destroyed,’ Lynn said. ‘Not that it’s any of your business.’ Turning to another neighbour, she added, ‘Did I tell you, Bev? Every morning she’d wake up with it stretched out stiff on the bed right next to her. Vet said it was sizing her up, working out if she was too big to swallow and digest. I told him, “You’d better kill it. Before I do.” Daft cow thought it was being affec- tionate.’ Mandy glared at Lynn. To Ronson Lynn said, ‘Come in then, do a search if you like.’

Rachel Trezise is the author of a novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, the Dylan Thomas prizewinning short fiction collection, Fresh Apples, and a rockumentary title, Dial M for Merthyr (both published by Parthian). Her most recent novel is Sixteen Shades of Crazy (Blue Door). Her second short fiction collection, Cosmic Latte, was published on 1 May 2013 by Parthian. Her first full-length theatre play, Tonypandemonium, was staged at the Park & Dare by National Theatre Wales in October 2013.


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