“The point is,” Sylvester said, “my company guarantees a cleaner within thirty minutes of the booking being made. I like to think it’s the hygiene industry’s answer to Uber.”
He looked at Mackenzie’s incredibly dark eyes, her pitch black hair. It all contributed to a certain gothic aura, which he loved. She stifled a yawn.
“It’s meant to help with life’s nasty surprises,” Sylvester continued. Perhaps she was tired rather than bored, although he was aware that he could come across as dreary. He’d been given that feedback by friends endeavouring to help him out of a rut.
“Life’s nasty surprises,” Mackenzie repeated, in a monotone.
“Yes, I hate surprises myself.”
Mackenzie raised her eyes playfully. “You do?”
“Can’t stand the buggers. Anyway, what do you do? Surprise me,” he laughed.
“I’m a fitness instructor. Trying to get my finances under control. That’s why I’m here.”
‘Here’ was a pub in London’s East End where the evening class had gathered after the first session on Microsoft Excel. Mackenzie’s eyes travelled down his jeans to his sneakers. Her pink tongue circled her lips and Sylvester dared to hope that the three years he’d endured without a partner might be coming to an end.
“I’ve got to go now,” Mackenzie said.
“You do?” Sylvester tried to keep the disappointment from his voice. “See you next week, I guess.”
“Or before,” she smiled, handing him her business card.
That was seven months ago, and in that time Sylvester had discovered that surprises were integral to Mackenzie’s existence. They cropped up often in their relationship, particularly in their sex life. Foreplay, to Mackenzie, was leaping on Sylvester when he least expected it, usually from an unsighted position. She was good at leaping.
The weekend before his birthday, for example, Sylvester was congratulating himself on the excellent lasagne he’d provided, as he meticulously completed the washing up. His late mother had taught both him and his older brother Antonio the basics of Italian cuisine, and for that he’d be forever grateful. Antonia was now married and living in Naples where he worked as a policeman. They spoke regularly and Sylvester knew that his brother would approve of the bottle of Nero d’Avola that had accompanied the meal and which he was still sipping as he bent forward to scoop the last knife from the plastic bowl. Without warning, the full force of Mackenzie’s weight landed on Sylvester’s back and shoulders, causing his knee to slam into the cupboard under the sink, his wine glass to shatter on the wall, and his chin to kiss the sharp rim of the mixing tap.
There was blood, of course. With Mackenzie, there was often blood. Sylvester was not keen on blood.
Which was why he was lying on his back on the sitting room carpet, holding a gauze pad to his chin, while Mackenzie was positioned in between his legs.
“This is taking one hell of a long time,” Mackenzie observed, lifting her head. “And it still feels like Play-Doh.”
“Probably because I’m concentrating on applying an even pressure to the wound.”
“And the flow of blood to my nether regions is diminished by the loss of blood elsewhere, of course.”
“You needn’t sound so defensive.”
Adopting defensive positions, in a more literal sense, was something Sylvester had become accustomed to with Mackenzie. And it was because she enjoyed the look of terrorised paralysis on his face whenever she sprang a surprise, that she’d gone to such trouble organising the party for the following Saturday. The surprise party. All she’d told him was that she’d booked a romantic meal for two at their local pizzeria.
He was due to spend the evening before his birthday alone. Mackenzie would be comforting a close friend whose father had suffered a fatal heart attack whilst jogging. Saddened as he’d been to hear this, Sylvester was pleased to have some down time. Revisions to his website that week had led to several clients not being sent cleaners, which translated into a raft of scathing comments on social media. He was looking forward to relaxing in front of The Crown with his dinner and a bottle of Chianti.
This was why he swore to himself when the doorbell interrupted his cooking. And pleased as he was to see Mackenzie standing with an overnight bag, her long black hair plaited, it did mean adjusting his itinerary. Mackenzie was not a fan of period drama.
“Charlotte cancelled me last minute,” she explained. “She wasn’t quite grief-stricken enough to turn down a freebie to the Mexican wrestling.”
Sylvester ushered her inside and set about converting his Spaghetti Bolognese into a dish for two. Mackenzie was subdued for a while, but became friskier as they watched Friends with Benefits on Netflix.
“Wait for me in the bedroom,” she suggested. “I’ve got a surprise.”
Sylvester headed upstairs and got undressed. How lovely to have a girlfriend so spontaneous in the bedroom department! He sat up in bed in his striped dressing gown, propped up on a pillow, leafing through Top Gear magazine. Mackenzie was taking her time. Yes, sex was always a journey into the unexpected with her, but that film was building nicely. He’d rather be spending the evening alone, if he was completely honest. They’d have plenty of time in each other’s company at the pizzeria the following evening, and afterwards too no doubt. Not that he was complaining about the sex, but it was always on her terms, and leaving the physical stuff to one side, were they actually compatible in any other ways? Her behaviour was becoming ever more bizarre, and he was a normal guy trying to live a normal life. Perhaps he ought to consider extricating himself…
There was a savage scream. Sylvester looked up in alarm as the door catapulted open and Mackenzie, wearing a deadly warrior dream girl outfit, launched herself in his direction like an Exocet missile. It was self-protection that made Sylvester roll rapidly off the bed, and quick-thinking that made him hang on to the pillow to cushion his fall. And it was because he was on the floor that he didn’t witness her collision with the forged iron headboard – a housewarming present from his brother Antonio. The tearing watery thump directly above him sounded bad enough, but the silence afterwards was more disconcerting.
“Mackenzie?” he said, slightly tremulously.
There was no answer.
With some trepidation, Sylvester pulled himself up to a standing position, unsure of what he was about to encounter.
At first glance you might have thought she was peering over the back of the headboard, searching for something that had dropped behind. But she was in a weirdly elevated position. Feeling progressively more wobbly, Sylvester saw that she wasn’t actually supporting herself at all, her arms were hanging loose, and her head was absolutely still. And on the closer inspection he forced himself to make, it turned out that a curling metal spike was keeping the top half of her body raised, having penetrated her right eye and God knows what else beyond. And the last two things he noticed before he fainted were a curious smell of cooked pork, but sweeter, and blood splattered on the white wall in the manner of a Jackson Pollock painting.
He was probably out for a few seconds; it felt longer. He came to on the floor by the bed, and standing up re-experienced the horror show a second time around. Poor Mackenzie – she certainly hadn’t deserved this! He vomited over the back of her deadly warrior outfit.
At moments of crisis, Sylvester would turn to his older brother. So it was Antonio that he called in a state of panic and deep distress, attempting to explain the carnage that was once his bedroom.
Antonio sounded stoned, and even joked, quite inappropriately, that now would be a good time for Sylvester to register for his own emergency cleaning services. When Sylvester groaned quietly in response, Antonio quickly took control.
“You have to get her off the headboard,” he said.
“I can’t do that – no way!”
“Of course you can. Just yank her off.”
Sylvester was reluctant, but his brother was a policeman – he surely knew best. So keeping his eyes tightly shut, he gripped Mackenzie’s head and performed the task with difficulty. It was like pulling a water melon with hair off a bent skewer.
“Okay, is she off?”
“And she’s dead, yes?”
“Of course she’s fucking well dead.”
“Alright, calm down.”
A minute later, Sylvester was in the kitchen, splashing himself with cold water.
“Are you still there?” Antonio asked.
“I had to get away from her,” Sylvester said tearfully. “I was just thinking about ending the relationship and now this happens.”
“And where is she now?”
“On my bed. It looks like she’s been murdered.”
“Yes, and that is what I’m worried about.”
There was a pause and then Antonio lowered his voice.
“If you’re right that no one knew Mackenzie was at your house, calling the cops would be a big fuck up. They won’t believe this was an accident, especially if they hear you were thinking about giving her the heave-ho. You’d be looking at twelve years, ten if you’re lucky.”
“So what the fuck should I do?”
“Nothing, yet. Other than clean up your bedroom. Walls, ceilings, everything. Put her in the bath first. And then have a stiff drink. And wait for me to call. And for God’s sake don’t do anything stupid, like Googling: ‘How do I get rid of a dead body?’”
It was not easy carrying Mackenzie along the landing. He threw up another two times en-route. Eventually, he rolled her over the bath edge and steeled himself before looking. She was like an exhibit from The London Dungeons.
After that Sylvester did indeed drain an entire bottle of cheap French wine. He couldn’t face his bedroom. He would sleep on the sofa and deal with everything in the morning. Antonio didn’t call back, but around eleven Sylvester rang the local pizzeria to cancel the booking for the following night. He was surprised to hear there was no booking to cancel.
The next morning, his birthday, after a sleepless night of cold sweats on the sofa, he rose early and tearfully attacked his bedroom with every cleaning product in the house. The operation took three hours, and he thought of little else but Mackenzie, alone in the bath in her fancy dress costume.
Unknown to Sylvester, many of his friends were also that morning thinking about fancy dress costumes. There was talk at breakfast tables of Tibetan monks, fifties diva outfits, lumberjack shirts and Canadian Mounties. Mackenzie’s idea for a surprise party had certainly captured their imaginations, although some were less sure about whether she was the right person for Sylvester. Those that had spoken privately with each other about the relationship agreed that Mackenzie was somewhat strange, or just too animated for him. There was a general consensus that Sylvester should dump her at the earliest opportunity.
Having spoken to Antonio again, Sylvester was indeed thinking about dumping Mackenzie: somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. And this was why he was rolling up her stiffened body in a length of leftover carpet he found in the loft. He wasn’t quite sure why it had taken Antonio so long to call back; his advice wasn’t that amazing.
“Wait till it’s dark before moving her. Then drive through the night and bury her in a remote forest, preferably in Scotland.”
“Because when they realise she’s missing, they’ll be trawling every canal and waterway within twenty miles of your house. And make no mistake, you’ll be their main suspect.”
Sylvester mentioned using the carpet he had, and Antonio advised finishing the job with bubble wrap and gaffer tape.
“Argos sells home moving stuff, I seem to remember. So get your arse down there.”
And it was in his nearest Argos that Sylvester ran into his childhood friend Helen. They used to play doctors and nurses together at a tender age; Helen perhaps knew him better than anyone else.
“Sylvester, fancy bumping into you. Happy birthday, by the way!”
“Thanks.” Sylvester did his best impersonation of someone smiling in delighted surprise.
“Buying anything nice?”
“Oh, not really. Bits and bobs. How about you?”
Helen looked uncomfortable for a moment. “I’ve got to get some – a camera. For me!”
“Great. For taking photos?”
“I use my phone.”
“Yes, me too. So what are you doing for your birthday?” she smiled.
“Oh… Just a meal. Mackenzie’s booked a restaurant – you know, nothing fancy.”
“That sounds great!” Helen said, still smirking. “And what time are you leaving?”
“Errm, eight o’clock.”
“Like you once told me, she’s a lively one, isn’t she?” Helen said.
Sylvester’s eyes filled with tears, and he nodded.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I’ve just got a lot to sort out. Before I put.. Before Mackenzie comes over.”
Mackenzie certainly didn’t look particularly lively once she’d been further entombed in bubble wrap and sealed up with silver gaffer tape. He slid her down the stairs, then pushed her like a plastic tree trunk towards the front door. And there she stayed for the next six hours while Sylvester worked through his to-do list. He cleaned the bathroom and did another sweep of the bedroom, scouring every inch around the bed with a magnifying glass. He filled up his car with petrol. He left a message on Mackenzie’s answer phone confirming that he’d be seeing her that evening. And for the last two hours, he paced the house like a demented psychopath, talking to himself, talking to Mackenzie, talking to his late mother, sometimes to all three in the same sentence.
He would go at eight, on the dot. It would be dark by then and it seemed a mark of respect to leave the house with Mackenzie at exactly the moment they’d planned to head to the pizzeria.
Two minutes before departure time he made his final checks. It was important for the journey from the front door to his car to be seamless and unseen. He took one last look out of his front window. The scene in front of him was picture-postcard quiet.
Although in fact some forty of Sylvester’s friends were hidden around his front garden, in recycling bins, behind walls, or on the road itself. Mackenzie had been quite specific in her instructions, stressing the importance of no one being visible when she and Sylvester came out of the front door.
Sylvester breathed deeply, undid the catch, pulled the door open, then stooped towards the body. Mackenzie was heavier than anticipated. It was like lifting a column of cement as he hoisted her up and onto his shoulder. He’d decided that this was the safest and most efficient way of carrying her the short distance.
He stepped outside, and was just thinking that he really should have opened the car boot first, when the area around him erupted in a blaze of sparklers, party poppers, and fire crackers. Sylvester stopped dead on the path as a sea of smiling people in an array of costumes appeared from nowhere. Pirates, prostitutes, traffic wardens and religious leaders joined together in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. But the spirit of the song quickly drained away, and only two polo players on stick horses, who were lingering on the pavement, actually sang the word Sylvester. He was by now surrounded by puzzled faces. A man in a Panama hat whom he didn’t recognise was quite obviously looking for Mackenzie, others were surveying the bubble wrap suspiciously, and Neville asked Sylvester if he could lend a hand with whatever he was carrying. But then, as Sylvester struggled to keep the package level, a kink of black plaited hair escaped from one end. And uncoiling further, it was soon hanging quite freely, even jauntily, in front of him.
James Woolf’s stories have been published widely in the UK, including in Ambit, Spread the Word, Storgy, Cabinet of Heed, Cafe Aphra and Riggwelter. He also writes scripts for the theatre and his most recent play, Empty in Angel, was a finalist in two categories in the recent Standing Ovation awards. The play will be appearing at different venues when theatres reopen. You can read more about James on his website http://woolf.biz