Birthdays for the dead
Flash. It s like an explosion going off in her head, knives in her eyes, broken glass in her brain. Then darkness. She rocks back in the seat; the wood creaks under her.
Blink. Blink. A hot blue-and-orange glow painted across the inside of her eyelids. Tears rolling down her dirty cheeks.
She drags a shuddering breath through her nose, wet with snot. The smell of dirt and bitter-onion sweat, dust, and something pissy like when that mouse got trapped behind the cooker. A little furry body hidden in darkness, going rancid with mould, stinking of rotting sausages, roasting every time they turned the oven on.
Please Her mouth makes the word behind the gag of sticky tape, but all that comes out is a muffled moan. Her shoulders ache, both arms twisted behind her back, wrists and ankles stinging from the cable-ties that hold her to the hard wooden chair.
She throws her head back and blinks at the ceiling. The room fades back in: bare wooden joists stained almost black; spider webs; a neon strip-light, buzzing like a wasp trapped in a glass. Walls smeared with filth. A huge camera mounted on a tripod.
Then the noise. He s singing Happy Birthday to You, the words coming out all broken and hesitant, like he s scared to get them wrong.
This is fucked up. Completely fucking fucked up. It s not even her birthday yet: not for four more days
Another shuddering breath.
It can t be happening. It s a mistake.
She blinks the tears from her eyes and stares into the corner. He s getting to the big finale, head down as he mumbles out the words. Only it s not her name he sings, it s someone else: Andrea.
Oh thank God.
He ll get it, right? That it s a mistake? She s not supposed to be here: Andrea s supposed to be here. Andrea s supposed to be the one tied to a chair in a manky little room full of dirt and spiders and the smell of dying mice. He ll understand.
She tries to tell him, but the gag turns everything into grunts and nonsense.
She s not Andrea.
She shouldn t be here.
He stands behind the camera again, clears his throat a couple of times, takes a deep breath, licks his lips. His voice sounds like one of them kids TV presenters: Say cheese! Another flash, filling her eyes with burning white dots.
It s a mistake. He has to see that he s got the wrong girl, he has to let her go.
She blinks. Please. This isn t fair.
He comes out from behind the camera and rubs a hand across his eyes. Stares at his shoes for a bit. Another deep breath. Presents for the Birthday Girl! He thumps a battered old toolkit down onto the creaky wooden table next to her chair. The table s spattered with brown stains. Like someone spilled their Ribena years ago.
It s not Ribena.
Her mouth tightens behind the gag, tears make the room blur. Air catches in her throat turning everything into short, jagged, trembling sobs.
She s not Andrea. It s all a mistake.
I got A pause while he shuffles his feet.
I ve got something special just for you, Andrea. He opens the toolkit and takes out a pair of pliers. Their rusty metal teeth shine in the gloom.
He doesn t look at her, hunches his shoulders, puffs out his cheeks like he s going to puke, scrubs a hand across his mouth. Tries for that barely there smile again. You ready?
Monday 14th November
Oldcastle FM droned out of the radio on the kitchen work surface. wasn t that groooooooooovy? It s eight twenty-five and you re listening to Sensational Steve s Breakfast Drive-Time Bonanza! A grating honk, like an old- fashioned car horn.
I counted out thirty-five quid in tens and fives onto the reminder notice from the Post Office, then dug in my pocket and made up the balance in change. Forty pounds eighty-five pence. Enough to keep Rebecca s mail being redirected into my PO Box for another year.
This week s haul was a Next catalogue, three charity begging letters, and the Royal Bank trying to flog her a credit card. I dumped the lot in the bin. Everything except for the birthday card.
A plain white envelope with a second-class stamp and a stick-on address label:
It d been done on a typewriter, not a laser printer, the words hammered into the paper, the letter e a little out of line with everything else. Just like all the others.
The kettle rattled to a boil, filling the air with steam.
I took a tea towel to the window, making a gap in the condensation, sending droplets running down the glass to pool on the mould-blackened wooden frame.
Outside, the back garden was a tangle of jagged silhouettes the sun a smear of fire on the horizon, painting Kingsmeath with gold and shadows. Grey-harled council houses, pantiles jaundiced with lichen; the glistening slate roofs of the tenements; a primary school surrounded by chain-link fencing squat and dour, its windows glowing.
Haha! Right, it s Straitjacket Sweepstakes time and Christine Murphy thinks the answer is Acute Polymorphic Psychotic Disorder. An electronic quack. Looks like the voices in your head got it wrong, Christine: better luck next time.
The cigar box was rough beneath my fingertips. A little bit bigger than an old-fashioned VHS case, decorated by someone only just old enough to be trusted with round-nosed scissors and glue. Most of the sequins had fallen off years ago, and the glitter looked more like grit than anything else, but it was the thought that counted. The perfect size for storing homemade birthday cards.
I opened the lid. The woody smell of old cigars fought against the kitchen s mildew fug and whatever the hell was wrong with the drains.
Last year s card sat on top of the little pile: HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! scrawled above a Polaroid photograph a square picture set into a white plastic rectangle. Thing was virtually an antique, Polaroid didn t even make the film- stock any more. The number 4 was scratched into the top-left corner.
I picked up the latest envelope, eased a kitchen knife under the flap, and tore straight along the fold, then pulled out the contents. A flurry of dark flakes fell onto the work surface that was new. They smelled of rust. Some hit the edge of the tea towel, making tiny red blooms as they soaked into the damp fabric.
This year s photo was mounted on plain white card. My little girl. Rebecca. Tied to a chair in a basement somewhere. She was He d taken her clothes.
I closed my eyes for a moment, knuckles aching, teeth clamped hard enough to make my ears ring. Bastard. Fucking, bloody bastard.
Stick with us folks cos we ve got another heeee-larious wind-up call after the news, but first it s a golden