Writings / Fiction

No One To Miss

Naben Ruthnum
Every city is a series of rooms. Outside matters minimally, if at all.
–Ronan Callaghan

“There’s a Blackwood story – not Blackwood’s Magazine, I mean a tale by macabre spinner Algernon Blackwood – called ‘The Glamour of the Snow.’ Now, I thought how difficult it must have been not to thrust in the pun and use ‘Glammer.’ Not Glam-Oar, Glam-Paddle, but Glam-mer, mer as in the meow of a respectable closeted kitten. A glammer is an illusion, a spell of attraction, of – of – of – ”

Ronan Callaghan’s pulse guttered and died with his speech, and his forehead hit the porcelain plate in front of him with a crash muted only by a layer of eighteen-month aged prosciutto. The shards kept their circular shape under the diaphanous, clinging pigflesh. Martin waited for a tendril of blood to ease out of Callaghan’s left nostril. When it never came, he was unsure if the man was really dead at all. The same sinuous cocktail of drugs was coursing through his own system, elongating reality and shortening the space between his thoughts in the repetitive way that he found too boring to describe, but that Ronan had always been able to dress up into some semblance of an interesting story. Ronan. Dead and plated. The most interesting man I know, thought Martin, now has his ugliness unmitigated by talk. During the ensuing, still hour, the tenebrous flesh at the crown of Callaghan’s head paled into a creamy fontanel that Martin pressed with his thumb, expecting either to pierce through or to turn on a theretofore unseen monitor that would reveal the secret meaning behind Ronan’s death.

At least this happened before he could have “Wilde Times” tattooed on either side of his shaft, Martin thought, stroking the bald skull and recognizing its cool surface as death. Martin had thought that the tattoo was one of Ronan’s jokes, until he’d called the parlour himself and verified that the appointment existed. Ronan was too smart for ham-fisted irony and not dumb enough to get such an obvious tribute to his god seared into his cock – so what had the real plan been? Martin rifled the dead man’s pockets for a moment, hopeful that he would discover a diagram of the real tattoo. There was nothing to be found, so he left.

In the morning, Martin was in his own apartment, under his own sheets. His secondary, backup sheets, with a Ninja Turtles comforter from the nostalgia vendor on College Road, in lieu of the Canadian goosedown quilt his mother had given him as a going-away present when he’d left for London. Its weight had pushed his baggage into the obese category and he’d had to shell out an unexpected forty-five dollars. This had somewhat soured his airport parting with Mrs. Elaine Croome, who had been his mother for twenty of the twenty-eight years of his life. The quilt was out with the rest of his laundry – an enterprising Filipina neighbour of his had started a pickup / delivery service. She borrowed her husband’s filthy landscaping van on weekends, carefully lining the interior with painter’s plastic, then loading in organized bales of her neighbours’ laundry. It was cheap, and Gregoria, as she called herself, was so earnest that Martin looked at this luxury as cheap charity.

The thought of painter’s plastic conjured the specter of Ronan. A more panicked witness and cohort would have wrapped the cooling man and buried him beneath a mass of bricks in a disused Underground tunnel, finishing his task and emerging from beneath a Camden manhole just about now, as Martin peeled the plastic meninges from his morning pudding cup. With the chocolate whip in his mouth and his brain dying for a gulp of seratonin, Martin felt unafraid of being tied to Ronan’s death. He’d spent a fascinating week with the man but had been no more connected to him than any of the pittering young boys whom Ronan had drawn in to his light-bending, canis majoris field. When Martin climbed through window of a party that Ronan had become the host of by dint of his presence, the room’s eyes followed the clatter at the sill. Ronan’s entourage, kids with meteoric acne scars and noses that were the result of centuries of genetic dogpiling, were visually chastened by Martin’s great beauty and Ronan’s admiration of the effortless arrival of this particular latest face.

“I was just telling these fellows that that was the very fire escape that Robert Wyatt fell off. Shattered his spine, broke up his band, started playing that ferrety solo music that I like so much.”

“It was a pretty easy climb,” said Martin.

“Yes, I was lying. The Wyatt balcony is in Maida Vale somewhere. And you ruined my story by clambering up so casually.”

No one of import had a chance to notice the connection between Ronan and Martin as it developed over the next six days, and the apartment where the man had died was thoroughly besmeared with the fingeroils and DNA-rich secretions of a generation of London party kids: high-waisted and skinny-jeaned symbiotes who were desperate to leave some sort of mark, even if it was a liquid spray across the man’s sheets.

Behind the remaining pudding cups in the open fridge was another package of the excellent prosciutto that Ronan had died on, and Martin checked the best-before date.

“So that’s my first conscious act in face of the shortness of life. Taking stock of the mortality of the dead meat in my fridge,” Martin said, with the monologic ease of a man who’d lived alone for many years. He walked to the bathroom on the balls of his feet, letting the thick, cracked, scurfy soles deal with the cold tile as his toes basked in high-rise obliviousness. The bathroom was the warmest place in the apartment, other than his bed when his body was in it. He relaxed and stared into the familiar, pleasant landscape in the mirror.

The elevator smelled, as always, of a cleaning fluid that Martin had never encountered anywhere else. The odour teetered on the edge of nastiness; it was as though an eraser, a cork, and a lemon had been placed in a microwave and were emitting their essences before succumbing to flame. Martin used his right thumbnail to scrape tomato sauce from the pilling sleeve of his wool jacket, which was deteriorating into uselessness along with the rest of his wardrobe. There were probably items in Ronan’s vast walk-in that would fit Martin’s lithe body, assuming that Ronan kept artifacts from the slender past that he alluded to, but that Martin lacked the imagination to envision.

The newsagent provided Martin with two extremely useful pieces of information. He was a Pakistani man of about forty who owned two flats and had a share in the kebab shop across the street that had recently been shut down by anti-Halal protestors. The man was usually shy with Martin, almost flirting under his hearty eyelashes when the young man stopped for his regular comic book (2000 A.D.) and strong mints. This time he indicated one of the papers, the front page of which had been drifting away from celebrity lies and toward true crime for the past six months. The first fact that Martin garnered from the paper was that it was a full twenty-four hours later than he thought it was. Ronan had died after midnight on Saturday, and Martin had apparently slept through the rest of the weekend and awoken at his usual time on Monday morning. The second fact was the one that the vendor had been indicating: a photo-realistic sketch of Martin’s face adorned the front page of the paper, alongside a photo of “recently-released sex offender Loren Carmody, found dead in his flat yesterday after an anonymous phone call.”

“Maybe you’ll go and talk to the police?” The vendor leaned forward, his timidity dissolved by his Martin’s new association with crime. The combination of fame and infamy had apparently eroded the intimidating presence that Martin had expended absolutely no effort in constructing. The loss of an image arrived at without labour was still a loss, and Martin was chagrined to see the man’s teeth exposed in an unguarded smile for the first time. They were huge and uneven, as though the contents of a packets of chips had been thrust into his gums by a diligent fifth-grader doing his best to replicate a horse’s smile with insufficient materials. “Packet of crisps, that is,” Martin whispered as he paid for the paper and the mints. He was trying to align his speaking with British English. A hostile police officer would pounce upon misused terms as an opportunity for hatred, and Martin’s exposition of the events, which he was inevitably going to make at the nearby police station, would be twisted into a confession. “Crisps.”

The kebab shop was still closed, the door boarded and the brickwork singed by guttering junior bonfires that had sprung up on shut-down day. The Anti-Halal Network was, as far as Martin could tell, an alliance between haters of Islam and lovers of animals, collaborating uneasily in the elimination of a tradition that slit the throats of goats and lambs and saw the dying livestock off with ululating prayers, prayers that conjured exploding subways and collapsing towers in the minds of approximately half of the sign-holders who had clogged the sidewalk in front of Akbar’s Own for two weeks. The fires had been set by a new faction, who’d arrived with red bandanas wrapped around their mouths and noses. It was unclear whether they were protestors or leisure-time arsonists.

“The thing with halal is that it fills the meat with adrenaline,” Ronan had said, when they passed the picket lines after his sole visit to Martin’s flat. “A terrified lamb is a tough chop.” Martin would have to tell the police about that visit, in case they should search his flat and find evidence of Ronan’s presence. Not Ronan, after all, but Loren. And what could his sexual offense have been? Gay, yes, of course gay, but with seemingly legal and natural tastes. Martin rubbed some of the soot from the burnt brick onto a white patch of birdshit that he’d just noticed on the top of his shoes, and was pleased to see the trace disappear, even though the polish dulled. His flat stomach rumbled. He would have liked a kebab.

About The Author


Naben Ruthnum has completed a novel manuscript entitled “Fifth Winter” and a few short stories. He is currently working on a new novel (from which “No One to Miss” is excerpted).

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