The Gaze Strip 

The Gaze Strip

When I visited the old man, I was not surprised to find him bed-ridden. But the plain black mask he wore on the top half of his wrinkled face was, to say the least, a little off-putting.

Despite being forewarned of his eccentricity, I was not prepared for the meeting to which I was to be party. He was a distant relation of mine, true, but, even now, I'm uncertain as to the precise lines of communication upon our complex family tree. Although it was beyond my memory, I had indeed met him before. Children have wide outlets in their sieve of the past, and only people considered big enough in the child's own personal scheme of things are left lodged across the drain-holes beyond any tide of senility's reach. But even people thus reclaimed remain as they were; they do not, in our minds, become as they are now: quite changed, scarred by time, foreigners of lost intimacy.

The old man I was told to call Uncle Clayton. He seemed to know me better than I knew him, clawing me, as he did, by the back of the neck towards his face for a soggy kiss from his loose-covered lips. I feared the eyes, wishing his mask was a veil or hat-net that some women used to wear in the old days: either to protect their features against time's cruel weathering or, more importantly, to protect us up-and-coming ones by blurring out their various sockets of evil.

"It's so nice to see you, Jay."

His spit found much scope for play with the 'so nice to see' but the name, thankfully, supplied no such scope. I was almost glad he'd got the name wrong, my real one being liberally sown with the letter s.

"I'm pleased to see you, too, sir."

I was almost suffocated by his flabby jowls but managed to say my piece. Even his nose looked sloppy.

"There's not two of us here." He laughed, referring back to my statement in the manner of a joke; but I could tell he wasn't really joking. "Call me Uncle Clayton," he continued. "And how is Jay? You were hardly out of your push-chair..."

His speech was not so rounded and continuous as the words implied. In fact, he stuttered and halted and squeezed up his eyes until they were blackened belly-buttons retracted within the frame of the mask. He became a dose of melted mutter. But, by this time, I had managed to free myself from his head-lock. He fidgetted with the pillows as if death was the only comfort he could ever now expect: incubating underneath them in the shape of a tooth fairy's foetus.

"I don't remember much about when you came to stay at the seaside, Uncle Clayton." This time it was my turn to falter. A demon faltering. I was no longer human. His eyes, upon reopening, had scoured out my soul. It would take another whole lifetime to replace the mortal stuffing. I quickly shook off such thoughts which he instilled in me and continued: "There's a photo on a donkey, of me, with you, Uncle Clayton, holding the bridle - on the beach. So I knew it was you now."

He smiled, with even less conviction than his earlier laugh. I wished that I had not come up here alone. The rest of the family were elsewhere. Or had I heard them giggling as they went out for a spin? I sensed death was like being abandoned. This old man should know better than me. We had all arrived in this far-out place - was it for a Christening of a child in the more esoteric branch of the family? Or a funeral? A wedding? A birthday? Some other less significant anniversary? Such events always brought families together again, without anyone really relishing reunions with near foreigners. Most yearned to put evil at the back of their minds, not dredge it back up from where it was clinging like fungus to the bottom of the ever-dripping sieve.

"Yes, I remember," he said, as he fingered the mask to straighten it a little. "You were dressed cowboyish, with six-shooters, eh, Jay."

I nodded, humouring myself with his idiosyncracies rather than humouring the man who harboured them. A characteristic pause ensued, giving me time to stand up straighter from the kiss. I looked towards the window and excluded daylight as a source of assistance. The others were probably hiking it at the creek. I thought I could see their bobble-hatted shapes in the distance, disfigured by the chokings of net curtains.

"I was famous once, Jay." I scowled as he rambled on. I knew it was time to make my excuses. I bent to kiss his cheek before he had chance to rekiss mine. And his arm coiled round my neck again, before I could bob up like a bird escaping an early worm. "You a girl friend, eh, Jay?"

I liked the question since it contained not even a sniff of an s. Yet, I hated its meaning. He obviously wanted to gauge the lie of the land vis a vis the family tree and what potential regenerative extensions were up my sleeve. Shame had never been a chink in my armour, but at that moment I felt steeped in it. I felt as if my skull was covered in tiny holes left by a helmet of tin-tacks.

"No, Uncle Clayton."

I said it simply, with no double-meaning in the delivery.

"No?" He stared, as if his eyes had become splinters of ice, rather than shellfish. "Well, it's about time you did, Jay. We've no one else with a silver bullet in his holster." He laughed. He put his hand down into the bed and brought up a rosy-rubbed pippin apple and tried to balance it on my head, with a further chuckle. Then, planted it my hand, inviting me to sink my teeth into it. "Doesn't a bare of pear breasts tempt you?" he resumed, leeringly.

I nearly laughed at his childish prurience. His eyes spoke schoolboy smut. I don't know what mine spoke, but Uncle Clayton, with amazing strength for one of his age, hugged me closer - as if he wanted me to get into the bed with him. Of course, I resisted, whilst hoping that he was merely being affectionate in the only way he knew. In the tussle, however, the elastic holding the mask round his eyes broke and flopped down his face like a disjointed spider. The unharnessed eyes sagged out, the pupils like nipples. Before I could make the memory big enough, I heard the others screeching as they piled down the stairs from where they'd ensconced themselves. They had been in the house all the time, as I later discovered, indulging in a fancy dress party in one of the attics. I managed to unclutch myself from Uncle Clayton's gloomy bedside, amid the rumpus that spilled over on our side of the door. One untidy urchin, who some said favoured my looks, spat at the old man in the bed who was already trying to refix the mask over the wobbly eye sacs as well as plump up the bolster pillows behind his back. I held my head between my hands as others helped me down the stairs towards the parlour where eatables had been set out earlier in the day. I imagined I was actually spraying the place with high-pressure brain through the holes in my skull.

"Who was that in the bed?" I managed to ask someone close enough to hear me amid the ruck.

"That, my boy, was the Lone Ranger."

And some wag put the William Tell overture on the wind-up.

(published 'Nasty Piece Of Work' 1997)

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