PART ONE: REUNION
On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A screening of Françoise Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine was taking place inside and up to four people had arrived for the event. The salival softening of popcorn and hushed swallowing was the only perceived sound, inaudible beneath the film’s frenetic dialogue. Having abandoned her firstborn and taken one hundred footsteps towards the bridge, she attempted a crossing as the panic buckled her knees and rendered her incapable of walking or breathing. She staggered back to the video shop to find her firstborn and bath towel gone. Interrupting Truffaut: “Where is he? Where’s my son?” David, bulbous with surprise: “What? You have a son? I never knew you were pregnant.” Carol: “Give him back to me, you psycho, or I will outright fucking murder you.” The unwanted firstborn had been taken and remained untraceable for the following five years.
Her brother Bill was teaching a class on strategic Twitter-bombing as part of his marketing broadsweep programme for the Media Studies MA at Canberra University when he received an SOS text from his mother: YR SIS ND HLP. CM PLS. Reluctant as ever to interrupt his important teaching duties (how little she knew), she had used the same all-caps telegramese as when his father had passed: YR FTHR HD HRT ATTCK. DID NT SRVVE. PLS CM HM. Carol had been in a state of post-traumatic shock since the incident and had been subsiding on a diet of citalopram, vodkatinis, Lion bars, and Natrasleep, attending public roundtable mope-and-grope sessions where she discussed the various short-lived suitors that squirmed under her sheets and the ghost babies that visited her in the night with their sobbing faces and spumes of sick. His mother’s text was a plea that he return and help drag her from the metaphorical ledge upon which she was dangling (and the literal: she had moved into an old fisherman’s cottage that was sinking into the water below Bridgeloch Hill).
Bill left his condo in Canberra and the class of cooing co-eds burning love poems into his fragile heart, and returned to the village of Bridgeloch whence he was whelped. He had dropped his childhood friends to forge a sham living in the land of mid-summer winters and bouncing bandicoots, and from his condo viewed their woebegone Facebook photos: freezing in their shorts at rain-logged football matches, holding their plump offspring to the camera, posing in seven inches of slap in nightclubs, each status ribboned with Martian lolspeak and childish emoticons, bearing no emotion or sentience whatsoever. Sometimes the faces vanished into football insignias, as if their fanatical and pedestrian attachment to The Game had absorbed their personalities in toto, leaving little left except a sequence of short-wearing ball-kicking kid-squeezing nobodies from the sad and trivial past.
He hadn’t spoken to his sister since the loss. Her intolerable drama and dependence on his stable and yielding heart had been one of his prime reasons for buggering off. Apart from the mutual exchange of platitudes in Xmas cards (spiked with the usual barbs—“hope the shrimp are simply delish this year”, “have a GREAT Xmas on the beach”) and his mother’s telephone updates on which local sucker she had bumped and dumped, what medications had misfired this month, and her latest sexually provocative anti-Labour tattoos. He respected her through fraternal obligation, hoping for the sake of the bloodline she might find an end to her torments, although his resentment was too strong to permit real concern. Their relationship had been antagonistic from the beginning. She had hogged the parental limelight, nudging him aside with dismissive remarks on his dim-witted nature (he had been smarter and more talented), his revolting face (he had been handsome from age seven up), and his dependence on her love (he had never loved or depended on her for anything).
In the absence of an upper hand, she used her working-class local-girl status as a bludgeon. She claimed to pride herself on being “Bridgeloch born and bred” (no sane person would use this as a boast), and default defended all Bridgelochers in spite of their long and impressive list of idiocies. She had supported a purse-snatcher, citing his skill at algebra in school as a testament to his character, and among her other defences: a serial groper—his well-turned out appearance; a heroin addict and robber—his persistence to pursue his passions; a neo-nazi convicted of a double murder—his careful planning and moral convictions. There was no bent Bridgelocher she wouldn’t leap to defend.
He returned on November 28th. Apart from the repainted post office and the pawn shop’s expansion (a self-checkout corner had been installed where a computer would scan and value the pawned tat), the village was the same as in 2009. An unexploded bomb had taken out the optometrist’s office in 1987—this had been the last change to its infrastructure since the war. He walked along the pavement where strips of moss burst through the slabs, and performed his childhood ritual of remaining within each paving slab and never letting the moss touch his shoe. Bob the barber offered the same nod and question: “How’s your mother?” Bill blinked. “I haven’t been here in over five years.” Bob nodded in response and asked after her, even though she lived four minutes away.
Carol resided in a building with an expelled member of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle, whose revenge tapestries hung from her windows bearing the message SOD YOU ANNE AND LESLEY; Vice President of the Depressed Teddies and Assorted Moping Mascots Club, whose suicidal koalas and pandas sat in the kitchen and bathroom windows clutching razors and knives; lead singer in a Blonde Redhead tribute band, whose rendition of ‘The Dress’ earned a round of applause at the YMCA; and a balding late-middle-aged man who cleared his throat over two hundred times an hour and masturbated to episodes of the sitcom New Girl with an abstracted and melancholic air. She buzzed him indoors and appeared with a headdress made of barbed wire around her beehive coif. Her outfit aimed to provoke: she had a T-shirt reading I ATE MADELINE MCCANN, sported tats of violent executions and murders, and wore barbed wire necklaces on her wrists, drawing trickles of blood down her arms. Her first words: “What’s the shrimp like down under, mate?” She flopped on the couch and and plunged a heroin-filled needle into her arm. Bill said: “Hello, Carol.” She replied: “Do your pet bandicoots disapprove of recreational drug use?” Bill said: “If I ever see a bandicoot, I’ll be sure and ask him.” Carol vanished into her pleasure cloud.
He returned twelve hours later.
Their first face-to-face conversation in half a decade encompassed her new fondness for German thrash metal bands The Bremen Bukaki Boys and Thongclamp; her selection of Cthulhu back tats; her assorted nipple and lip rings and the volume of her screams during the perforation procedure; and her fondness for porridge oats. An hour later she opened the file of recriminations, accusing him of hogging the rubber duckie during their infant baths, spooning overmuch mash at Xmas dinners, and overshadowing her Kylie Minogue karaoke by reading P.G. Wodehouse in the corner. She was explosive on the topic of her lost child, flinging a cup at his head after the first insinuation. He suspected not-knowing to be the root of her berserk behaviour—had an infant corpse presented itself she might have taken the sacraments and signed up for membership of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle—so planned to stop in later at the library (pared down to two bookshelves and a computer) to conduct research on the thin but relevant history of infant losses down the decades.
“Sister! Might we attempt a civil confab for our third meet?”
“How’re the dingos?”
“I was being civil. You poked a vinegar-soaked stick into open wounds.”
“Mother sent me here. I can’t have the death of a sister on my conscience.”
“You have a conscience now?”
“Tell me the real reason for this lunacy.”
“Listen, my roo-riding brother, I am beyond saving. You can’t help a woman chained to a starving sabretooth.”
“And you can’t say why?”
“It’s a matter for me to ponder in the pits of Hades.”
“Christ. Overegging much?”
“I will endeavour to find out.”
“Don’t tell mother, ever.”
“You making me swear to that?”
“Yes. Even if I die.”
“Please don’t die.”
“I can’t swear to that.”
PART TWO: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHICAL RAMBLE IN EXPLORATION OF LOST PARENTAGE
The Bridgeloch Inn
The three fathers: Tom Green (59), who in 1977 during the minor cultural eruption (a Slits tribute band performed two numbers in someone’s garage before the police arrived and put an end to punk), conceived a child with a Catholic girl whose morals had fled when she saw a picture of Sid Vicious. One night the kid was left in an ice-cream truck during an all-night Teenage Jesus & The Jerks marathon, and had disappeared the next morning. Gerald Harper (39), who in 1997 during the minor Britpop eruption (a Pulp tribute band had performed on the grass outside someone’s house before Furious Freddie arrived with his rottweiler and ate Jarvill Cocksure’s blazer), conceived a child with a girl terminally indifferent to the direction her life was heading, up until the point she realised she was pregnant and this was not the direction in which she wanted her life to head. The child went missing after being left on the bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Ian Kirk (19), who in 2013 asked a girl he liked up to his room and impregnated her. The child vanished from its mother’s arms as she slept.
All three mothers had left Bridgeloch soon after to eke out lives of regret and recrimination and vermouth, while the fathers had remained to eke out lives of bewilderment and vagueness and lager. Bill brought the fathers together in the pub and after four pints of bitter suggested an exploration around the sites of their respective losses, and a deeper excavation of the region’s missing infants in history, with the hope that some detective work might unearth a pattern around these disappearances. He sketched a walking route around the village and the three fathers agreed to meet on Sunday.
Bridgeloch Close—The Stone
“I left school aged sixteen to sell paperclips in Troon. I went door to door asking semi-comatose housewives in their dressing gowns if they wanted to purchase high-grip paperclips to bind their documents or favoured the bendier plastic to twist into all kinds of exciting curves and straight lines. No wonder I longed to dress in cut-offs, sprout a mohican and tell Ted Heath to go fuck his sister.”
The Slits tribute band had performed at 3 Bridgeloch Close in Simon Quinn’s father’s garage. Gina Marsh dressed as Ari Up and Fiona Bright as Viv Albertine, while two lads in drag provided the bass and drum support. Tom and the nine others tried thrashing to the various semi-reggae and jangle guitar numbers, finding relief when the band covered ‘God Save the Queen’ and brought the bite of punk. The house was now owned by Paula Dunne, a schoolteacher who lived for her cheese and nibble evenings at the Castle Hotel, whose Nissan sitting in her whitewashed garage hid the one remnant of that evening—a large dent caused by Gina swinging her guitar and cracking the wall’s cavities. The dent had been re-filled several times and an unsmooth cloud of Polyfilla was still visible.
The walk wound along Bridgeloch Close, past the prefab houses with their council-splashed cream licks of late and their reverse-louvre windows that permitted rain and refused air. The stone-chip facades had lost ten percent of their stones, and new stones had been added during the repaint process to combine an off-puke colour scheme, a depressing aesthetic throwback to the seventies, and random stones plastered to the walls for kids to break their skulls on. The street curled round in the shape of a policeman’s helmet, prior host to large bulb of grass on which the kids amused themselves, now a car park crammed with Mum’s Ford and Dad’s Nissan and Eldest Son’s Skoda. Behind these houses, the large pitch for football matches and Bridgeloch gatherings, including the fair and the gala day, had become water- and bog-logged. At the centre, a sump of mud had formed into which people flung their unwanted furniture and deceased pets. In the rainiest season, cabinets, chair legs, cat paws, and hamster heads could be seen bobbing about the sump that became a swamp.
Gregor the Ice Cream Man used to park overnight on the grass if business was to be resumed in the morning. Ian’s girl had left her unwanted child there, placing the swaddled bundle beneath the milk lollies and, having failed to tell Ian she was pregnant up until her panicked change-of-mind and frenzied run back to the van, left him no chance to rescue his never-seen son after the never-seen birth or before the never-seen theft. The local priest Father Him (short for Himm) insisted that women shouldn’t spoil young men’s promising careers with their pregnancies, and to raise the children themselves until the fathers had a stable income, at which point the father might offer to support the children (but also reserved the right to refuse help due to the girl’s looseness in the first place). Father Him had held the moral reins for over six decades, and had died in 2013 aged 93. A swift funeral followed. At the end of the pitch was a large rock with the misleading local moniker The Stone.
“Lovers used to carve their names into The Stone with a hammer and chisel. We should be on there somewhere,” Tom said. Bill and Ian checked The Stone while the others fiddled with their phones (promises of beer and lunch were all that kept them), finding a well-chiselled if faded TOM & ANNA. Beneath, someone had chiselled VANTOS and underlined. “Who the fuck is Vantos?” Tom asked. “Might be that van rental place,” Ian said while zapping space-weasels on his latest app. “That’s Van-Tows,” Tom corrected. “So-called because the owner ran over some dude’s toes and thought that providing a towing service might increase his revenue and help the compensation payments.” Other theories were that two lovers had mashed-up their names to save time and effort chiselling—Vandross and Tossle? Vanuatu and Toshiba?—or that the names were a mash-up of their initials.
The Stone—Darling’s Chippie
“I had embarked on a nightclub romance with a coke-keen tearaway named Pauline Gert (most of the Pulp-cult had been Gert-stuffed), who intended to complete her HND in Ethical Hacking despite the drug love. She came from Troon, so viewed herself as the upper-class equivalent to me as in the song ‘Common People.’ We would visit supermarkets and she would pretend to be poor, laugh, and then try to fuck me on the sprouts.”
The group headed for Main Street where the shops were, passing into Scott Avenue—an interzone that had been burned down in a wartime Bonfire Night prank (one ex-soldier added several blocks of TNT to aid ignition and one hundred were incinerated). A complex network of weeds had overgrown the old tributes and flowers. A sign read Please do not litter. Be respectful of the dead. This did nothing to prevent teens from hurling crisp packets and Irn-Bru bottles into the weeds, or from urinating on the memorials after nights out. The interzone also acted as a venue for street brawls and various neighbourly duels. Criminals used the space to deposit their weapons or the intended recipients of their bullets. Two corpses had been found in the weeds, one from a gangland whacking in Weymss Bay, another from a local firm that operated out a boarding house for two weeks before the owner turfed them. (She ate a bullet and her corpse was dumped in the weeds).
The Pulp covers were performed in a flat above Scotmid (a supermarket that encompassed both Scottishness and middling produce), with Gerald’s friend Mark as Jarvill Cocksure, and three people from school he never spoke to as the other members. The setlist comprised material from Different Class until Furious Freddie and his equally unpleased rottweiler arrived to cap the encore. Gerald dived with Gert into the bedroom as the dog feasted on Jarvill, where they had swift and painful sex on the loo cistern. Gert had her child and left the bundle on a bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Quite why a bench had been placed facing the chip shop was a matter for debate—few people in life liked to watch drunks queuing up to order battered fish and chips—but the bench was used for eating and drunks slept there after forcing down their food and depositing the upchuck on the pavement beside. Gerald had carved their names into the bench with a pen. He checked again. GER & GERT 4 EVER, and below again VANTOS. “Fucking hell—Vantos again!” Tom said.
Bill bought the lads fish suppers and speculated on the nature of Vantos. He was surprised that no one had noticed these carvings. The lads explained that they had jobs (except Ian who had been weighing his options since leaving school and concentrating on his game-playing) and didn’t have time to inspect stones and benches. The owner of the chippie, Dick Darling (a name that had earned him derision and mockery from the youngsters, to which he responded by threatening to fuck off—after that they referred to him as Sir Dick), had seen the name Vantos carved onto the bench. “I seen that name carved onto the bench,” he said, adding: “Is there anything else you wanted to order?” Bill blinked. “No.” Dick made a motion that he fuck off out the door in that case and he’d have their custom again he hoped.
The last of the lads to lose their child was Ian. The loss had been welcomed by his girl Cass and himself (Cass sought to concentrate on her career in the sportswear industry). Their kid had disappeared from Cass’s arms as she slept in his bedroom. A quick check behind Ian’s bed revealed the word VANTOS.
PART THREE: BACKSTORY
On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A VANTOS operative in a civvies arrived a moment later, scooping up the bundle and laying him a pre-prepared crib in the back of a Transit van. He drove away after scoping the streets for witnesses or onlookers, leaving Carol alone where she lost her nerve and made a scene with the father in the video shop. The next morning she met the VANTOS operative as agreed at the rendezvous point (a disused café) and quizzed him on the fate of her discarded kid.
“Goes to Azerbaijan. Or Kabul.”
“To do what?”
“Put into foster homes. Learns, erm . . . becomes a Muslim.”
To bring her in some ill-perceived way closer to her son, she applied with success for a post in the VANTOS organisation. Their purpose was to remove for a fee unwanted children from doorsteps, having been instructed where to collect the bundle by the abandoner, and rehouse them in safe untraceable locations (removing chance of reunions or last-minute regrets). Having struggled with her conscience, not wanting a soul to know (accusing the father to avert suspicion), she shared a deep empathy with indecisive mothers, those forced to have their babies (either through religious beliefs or leaving it too late to abort), ones left by the fathers, or those unable or unwilling to raise their produce. She helped with the administration and practical care aspect, helping keep the babies fed and watered before being shipped abroad. She worked at the West Highland office, where the “abducted” children in her area were stored before being flown overseas to their new homes in Asian countries.
After nine months working at VANTOS, Carol fell for shipping clerk Adams Grantham. She was attracted to his insouciant manner, native Northumbrian banter, and beautiful thick lips where she found a new home inside the beaming folds of his soothing smile. She began an erotic odyssey, helping her to forget the ever-nagging dismissal of her unwanted child the year before, making love on desks, mantelpieces, and ping-pong tables, until the passion cooled and she felt comfortable in the arms of her Anglo-Saxon lover enough to impart her secret. He reacted in horror. “My God, how could you do that to your own child?” he asked. “What do you mean?” Carol snapped. “You know where they send them, don’t you? They are sold into slavery in child labour camps, as workers or helpers, and treated as expendable.” Carol was stunned. “No. I was told they are rehoused with wealthy families. Given a fresh start.” Adams was silent for an unacceptable period. “And do you really believe that?”
Carol poked her nose a little deeper into the firm’s paperwork. She was unable to consult her son’s shipping documents, as information was not retained past two weeks per child in case the parents tried to track their kids or police sniffed round. She opened strangers’ files, read the names and addresses of the new parents. Names such as Mr. & Mrs Jung-Il or Mr. & Mrs. Eun-Jin appeared, although the locations seemed suspicious, e.g. 2 New Harbour (Street), or Old District (Street)—“street” appeared to have been added in brackets in order to present a false image of security. A quick look on Google revealed these places to be on the outskirts of town, nowhere near the cosier suburbs as advertised, but warehouses blurred from Google street view, so more likely to be places where the sold worked to make trainers and toys for western kids on a diet of rice and water for sixteen hours per day.
She took to vodka. One day, sneaking into her boss’s office while he was out to lunch, she logged onto his computer, accessing a spreadsheet that contained the name, precise location, and year of abduction for every client. She knew a police confession was death sentence, the firm having strong connections in organised crime syndicates at home and abroad, so she took to staggering around the town drunk, carving the company name at the abduction spots in the hope someone might do the detective work. It was this chronic alcoholism that would end her life prematurely some years later.
About the Author: M.J. Nicholls is a writer from Glasgow. He is co-editor at Verbivoracious Press, and his novel, The House of Writers, will be released in 2016.