We had some trouble finding Morton’s place. It turned out to be an old farmhouse, miles from anywhere; huge, unkempt, and ugly. Andy parked in the yard. He stayed with the car while Irene followed me up a cracked concrete path to the front door.
‘Jesus!’ she said, trying not to trip over weeds. ‘Fancy living in a shit-hole like this.’
There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door. I reached out, but before I could tug it the door opened and a man was standing in front of us. Like the house, he was huge. In fact, he matched his house on all three counts.
‘Mr Morton?’ I said.
He nodded, scratching a beer-belly barely kept in check by a grubby Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
‘We spoke on the phone. My name’s Wenborn. My wife and I have come about the car.’
He didn’t reply. He seemed to be waiting for something more. I hesitated, then put out my hand.
Morton stared at it for a moment before taking it. When he did, his right hand seized mine like a pike swallowing a minnow, while his left came up and grabbed me below the elbow. Smiling, he squeezed.
He didn’t keep it up for more than a couple of seconds, but it was long enough.
Letting me go he turned to Irene.
‘You married to him?’
He sounded slurred, drunk. His breath reached me and I thought I could smell beer.
Irene stared, an expression on her face I couldn’t read.
‘I’m his wife,’ she said. ‘Yes.’
He gave her a long look, up, down, taking his time. Then he grunted.
‘You can come inside,’ he said, turning.
She started to follow him.
I was ignored. I felt like I hardly existed. I put out my throbbing hand and caught Irene by the arm. She stopped, one foot inside the house, the other on the cracked concrete.
‘Actually, Mr Morton, if you don’t mind I think we’d like to take a look at the car first.’
He turned around, taking notice of me again. I thought I heard Irene sigh.
‘The Citroen,’ I said. ‘The one you advertised in the paper.’
He stared at me blankly. I began to think maybe he wasn’t right in the head.
‘The car we spoke about on the phone, remember?’
He blinked and nodded. ‘Sure. I remember. It’s in the barn. It’s the white one. I’ve got two, one white, one black. Don’t need the white anymore. Keys are in her. Help yourselves. Come back to the house when you’ve finished.’
He went back inside. Irene took her foot out of his house and he shut the door.
* * *
Andy came with us into the barn.
‘Big guy,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t want to meet him down some dark alley at night.’
‘Tell me about it,’ I said. ‘The bastard nearly broke my hand when he shook it. And did you catch that T-shirt?’
‘He’s retarded,’ said Irene. ‘He probably didn’t mean to hurt your hand. I think he’s lonely.’
I wondered how she could tell all that when we couldn’t have been with Morton more than two minutes.
‘Whatever he is, he’s half cut, that’s for sure,’ I said. ‘You can smell it on him.’
‘I couldn’t,’ said Irene.
* * *
The two Citroens were parked side-by-side in the centre of the barn. The black one was filthy, but the white had been cleaned and polished, spruced up for potential buyers. The three of us climbed inside. I liked the look and the feel of her straight away. I liked the smell of the leather. I turned the key, and was pleased to hear the engine fire up first time.
‘Sounds sweet enough,’ said Andy approvingly. ‘Drive her out into the yard and we’ll take a look under her skirt.’
* * *
‘So if it was your money, you’d buy it?’
Andy tapped his teeth. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I’d buy it.’
Andy’s supposed to know about cars. He used to be a mechanic.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I like this car. I’ll go and tell Morton.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Irene.
‘I want to take another look at him.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s better if you stay here with Andy.’
Her mouth went tight and I thought she might make an issue of it, but for once she did what I wanted.
* * *
Morton answered the door and took me through to his kitchen. The inside of his house was even worse than the outside, a real pigsty. I was careful not to touch anything.
He’d insisted on cash. ‘Don’t trust banks,’ he’d said over the phone. He said it again as I handed over the money.
He took the notes from me and began to count them out on his cluttered kitchen table. He counted them very slowly and very carefully. Then he counted them again. When he was satisfied, he fished in a drawer and came up with a wallet of documents.
‘Here,’ he said, his fingers pulling at Mickey Mouse’s crotch as he scratched his belly.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘It’s a good car,’ he said. ‘Won’t let you down.’
I nodded, checking that the wallet contained everything it should. It did, so I put it in my pocket. I thought about offering my hand again but decided against it.
‘Well, Mr Morton…’
‘Where’s your wife?’ he said suddenly. ‘Isn’t she coming in? Isn’t she going to say goodbye?’
I stared up at him. ‘No. My wife’s waiting in the car. We have to get home.’
‘You left her alone out there with that other guy? D’you trust him with her, mister?’
‘You know. D’you trust them together?’
I wanted to hit him then. If he’d been smaller, maybe I would have.
‘He’s my brother-in-law,’ I said.
Morton frowned. ‘He’s her brother?’
‘That’s what I said.’
He nodded slowly. ‘Right. You got a brother of your own, mister?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘No. Me neither. Not any more.’
I’d had enough of this. ‘Well, Mr Morton…’
‘My brother died last week,’ he said. ‘You’ve just bought his car.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Oh.’
‘Did you ever have a brother that died, mister?’
‘No.’ I was hoping that whatever had happened to Morton’s brother hadn’t happened in my new car. ‘No, there was only me. I was an only child.’
‘That’s a shame,’ said Morton. ‘It’s no good, being alone.’
Irene was right, I thought.
‘Still, you’ve got a nice wife out there. I’d like a pretty wife like that. Why don’t you ask her to come inside and say goodbye? We could have a beer together. You and your wife want to share a beer with me, mister?’
He grinned, and I noticed for the first time that he was short on teeth. The few he had were chipped and yellow.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. Look, I have to go.’
I made a move for the door, but Morton blocked me. He’d stopped grinning. He put out his hand.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘But we have to shake first. You always shake to cement a deal.’
I thought about trying to push past, but he was twice my size. His huge hand hovered, a pike in the water.
‘Shake, mister,’ he said.
There was no way I was getting out of there until we’d played his stupid game. I made the best of it. This time he came close to breaking bones, but I stared him in the face while he did it. I was pleased I managed not to cry.
‘Nice ride you’ve got there,’ he said to my back as I was leaving. I thought he meant the car. I wasn’t sure.
* * *
Outside, I thanked Andy for driving us.
‘I really appreciate it,’ I said.
I was behind the wheel of my new Citroen. Andy looked in through the open window and said it was no problem.
I was aware of Morton watching from behind his kitchen window. I saw him dig deep into his nose, tug something out and stick it straight into his mouth. I looked away.
The dashboard gleamed, but there was a speck of something green sticking to the face of the clock. I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and scratched at the speck until it shifted.
‘Well, Charlie,’ Andy said. ‘I reckon you’ve got yourself a real bargain here.’
I started her up again and felt absurdly pleased with myself. I pumped the pedal a little, smiling, revving the engine like a kid of seventeen. In the passenger seat beside me Irene tutted, but Andy nodded and pursed his lips. He banged on the roof twice, too hard for my liking.
‘Yup. Sounds great.’
Irene began to fidget. ‘Look, can we go home now?’ she said.
She grabbed her seatbelt and fastened it. The diagonal strap of the belt flattened the material of her blouse and pasted it to her body, dividing her breasts. I thought about the way Morton had looked at her, the way he’d talked about her, and suddenly I saw them together, a shocking image in my head: Irene naked, laughing, riding him while he grinned up at her with his broken yellow teeth.
‘Right,’ said Andy. ‘Time I was gone. You two OK? Want me to follow you for a while, just in case?’
I couldn’t reply. I was watching the pictures inside my head. Irene answered him.
‘It’s out of your way, Andy. You get yourself home. And thanks again for the lift.’
‘Yes,’ I said, blinking, pulling myself out of it. ‘Thanks a lot.’
* * *
We hadn’t driven more than five miles before the car developed a problem. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Irene’s head snap up.
‘Damn!’ she said. ‘I knew it!’
I took my eyes off the road long enough to glance across at her. She had that look on her face again, the look that makes me feel like I’m shrinking, like something deep down inside of me is crouching low, making itself small. I feel it like a heavy lump folding in on itself over and over, crouching down in the centre of my guts.
‘I just knew it!’ Irene said again.
I looked back at the road. It was getting dark. I flicked on the car’s lights, narrowing my attention to the cat’s eyes reflecting back at me. They made a straight, bright line running ahead of us into the dusk.
‘Knew what?’ I said.
‘Charlie, are you kidding?’ Her voice was harsh. It grated on my ears. ‘You mean to tell me you can’t hear that?’
I cocked my head to one side, exaggerating, knowing how much it would annoy her.
‘Well?’ she said.
I could hear it all right, but it was nothing. Nothing much, anyway. Nothing important. A slight rattle in one of the rear springs. I could grease it when I got the car home, maybe tighten a bolt or something. It could wait until morning.
‘Can’t hear a thing,’ I said.
‘Jesus!’ said Irene. She grabbed her handbag and scrabbled inside for her pack of cigarettes.
I’d already decided not to tell her about Morton’s brother. While she was lighting up I saw her with him again. She was in his arms, sharing an after-sex smoke. His huge hands were on her. She was whispering something in his ear, and I remembered how I used to love her voice.
* * *
Three miles on, at a sharp bend in the road, I shifted down a gear. A dull thump came from somewhere beneath the rear seats and the rattle got louder. A lot louder. The shrinking thing inside me contracted a little more, crouched a little lower.
‘Oh, great,’ said Irene. ‘Just great! I suppose you’ll tell me you can’t hear that, either?’
I shook my head. ‘Calm down,’ I said. ‘It’s probably nothing. I’ll fix it when we get home.’
She snorted through her nose. ‘You mean if we get home. Not when. If.’
Suddenly I was angry, really angry.
‘What’s wrong with you these days, Irene? I’m telling you it’s nothing. Just calm down. I’ll fix it.’
‘Sure you will. You’re good at fixing things, aren’t you, Charlie?
‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’
She took a long drag on her cigarette. ‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter.’
I glared at the bright line running down the middle of the road. Irene blew smoke into the air and I breathed it in. I knew what she meant.
‘It was a joint decision, Irene. You agreed. Having a kid would have been a mistake…’
‘Just turn the car around, Charlie.’ Her voice was edged with ice.
‘Turn it around. We’re taking it back right now. You’re going to get our money back.’
I was suddenly aware of the throbbing in my hand. ‘Now hang on a minute…’
‘No, Charlie. I won’t hang on, not for a minute, not for a second. All I’ve done these past two years is hang on and believe me I’m getting sick of it.’
‘This isn’t about the car,’ I said.
She just stared at me, that look on her face.
‘Are you going to take us back, or are you going to move over and let me do it?’
* * *
By the time we got back to Morton’s farmhouse it was fully dark and the Citroen sounded like it was about to die. We drove into the yard and I turned off the engine. I sat there listening to it tick as it cooled.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
Irene got out and came around to my side of the car. She leaned in through the open window, like her brother had done a short time before.
‘Well? You coming?’ she said.
I didn’t want to see Morton again. I thought something might happen. I tried to reason with her.
‘What are we going to do if he takes the car back? How the hell are we going to get home?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t care. He can drive us in his other car, or we’ll call Andy, or we’ll take a taxi. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Are you coming, or do you want me to go in there and deal with this all by myself ?’
I didn’t want that. I got out of the car and followed her up the cracked concrete path.
* * *
Morton’s house was in darkness. Irene pulled the bell and it sounded somewhere deep inside, but Morton didn’t come. She pulled it again. We waited a full minute. There was no sign of him.
‘Probably drunk himself unconscious,’ I said. ‘Drunk himself to death with a bit of luck.’
Without a word she turned around and headed for the barn.
‘Screw you,’ I whispered behind her back. I was damned if I was going to tag along in her wake. I went back to the Citroen and sat on the bonnet, watching her walk towards the barn in the moonlight, watching as she opened the door and went inside.
She was only in there for a few seconds. She came out running.
‘Charlie!’ she yelled. ‘Come here. Come here quick!’
I ran to her. Her face was grey.
‘What?’ I said. ‘What?’
‘He’s in there,’ she said. ‘He’s in the car. I think he’s killed himself.’
I could hear an engine now, and smell fumes. I took a deep breath and went into the barn.
The black Citroen was parked in the same spot. Morton was lying sprawled on the rear seat, motionless. I opened the driver’s door and turned off the engine, then opened the rear door and leaned inside.
He’d used a length of garden hose to feed the exhaust back into the car. The end of it was just a couple of feet from his face. I got him under the arms and managed to pull him out, but once he was on the ground he was a dead weight and I couldn’t shift him.
I went back outside and sucked in fresh air. Irene had propped herself up against the barn wall.
‘I’ll need you to help me,’ I said.
Her face was still grey, but her eyes were bright, shining in the moonlight.
‘Is he dead?’
‘I don’t know. Probably. If we don’t get him out of there he will be. Just take a deep breath and follow me.’
* * *
Between us we dragged Morton clear of the barn and stretched him out in the dirt of the yard. I checked his neck for a pulse.
‘He’s alive,’ I said.
‘Oh God!’ said Irene.
I gave him mouth-to-mouth and showed her how to pump his chest.
‘When did you learn how to do this?’ she said.
‘Work,’ I said. ‘A course. Pump a little faster.’
‘I didn’t know,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know.’
After a couple of minutes Morton gasped and began breathing for himself.
Irene looked at me, incredulous. ‘Charlie!’ she whispered. ‘Oh, Charlie!’
She knelt behind his massive head and lifted it. She laid it in her lap and began to stroke his hair.
Morton opened his eyes and stared up at us.
‘Hello,’ he said. His voice sounded cracked.
‘Hello,’ said Irene. She began to cry, tears falling into his hair.
Morton looked at me. ‘I’m sorry, mister,’ he whispered. ‘You told her about my brother?’
I shook my head.
‘Hush,’ said Irene, like she was talking to a baby. ‘Hush, now. Everything’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right, isn’t it Charlie?’
‘Yes,’ I said. I searched his pockets and found a door key. ‘I’ll go and call an ambulance.’
Morton caught my hand and squeezed it, very gently. I looked at him with his head in my wife’s lap.
‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ I said.
Prizewinner and published in Peninsular Issue 18 (April 2000)