Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Palpable Obscure - Chapter 1

Hi All, since it's been a while since I posted any fiction, I thought I'd share this. It's the first chapter of my new novel 'The Palpable Obscure' - a story that follows Edinburgh ex-detective Max Milligan on his journey to find a reason to live. Enjoy!

Who shall tempt with wandering feet
The dark unbottomed infinite abyss
And through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way

- John Milton        


1. Able to be touched or felt.
2. (esp. of a feeling or atmosphere) So intense as to be almost touched or felt.

ob·scure   Adjective
adj. ob·scur·er, ob·scur·est
1. Deficient in light; dark.


Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh
- February 15th 1987 -

Faster than he could realise it, the world began to hurtle up towards the sky, and the boy was pulled into the green and blue demon’s lair that lay beneath the ice. As he plunged into the murky water, time began to slow down and he felt the icy lake’s long watery fingers gripping him, slowly working their way up his body. The water felt like blades, tiny shards of glass working their way under the boy’s skin. They slowly worked their way up his legs and pulled his body under, the searing cold hitting the boy’s chest and knocking the breath out of him. He reached his hands high into the sky in one last scramble towards his world, when he felt an icy finger take hold of his face and pull him under, choking for breath. He held on tightly to what little air was in his lungs as he sank deeper. The pain paralysing – his brain was telling his arms to swim, but his arms wouldn’t oblige. They lay limp at his side, paralysed by the cold. He would die here. The boy looked up towards the light at the surface, and as his body forced him to exhale, he watched the bubbles float gently up towards it. He could feel his vision fading now.

It was time to let go.


Marchmont, Edinburgh
- Twenty four years later -

‘Just do it, man! Stop wasting time.’

Max could only hear Virgil’s husky voice very faintly, gurgling through the thick blanket of water that covered his face. The lukewarm bathwater had stung his eyes for only a few seconds as he looked up, soaking in the last earthly sights he ever hoped to see. He could vaguely make out the mottled outlines of his bathroom ceiling swimming above his head. He fought the urge to cry – he didn’t want to go that way, weeping like a baby.

Death was the only thing he had thought about for a long while, and now, at last, he would be able to welcome it. His work was done; he had nothing left to care about – only death. He would embrace it at last, and let every last part of his miserable life slip away to nothing. He probably wouldn’t have chosen drowning - that was Virgil’s idea - but it seemed like an easy enough way to do it, and in the end, he thought, it didn’t really matter how he did it. In a few seconds he would be gone, and drowning would be as good a death as any. He had always imagined that the last few seconds would be filled with thoughts of his life – of the little beauty he had seen in his youth, but all he could think about as he lay there, holding his breath, was how his body would look when they found it. He imagined some detective, someone he had known, no doubt, strolling into his bathroom, notepad in hand, and finding Max’s body, all blue and ivory, bobbing in the bathtub.

Poor Mr. Milligan, they’ll say, he thought. What a tragedy, they’ll say. No one had any clue he felt this way! He imagined everyone’s pity. He despised their pity.

‘You’re stalling. Just let go, Max. Exhale and let your lungs fill with water. Let the pain all slip away.’ Virgil’s voice bubbled out from the distance, and Max could just see his head rippling above the surface in the corner of his eye.

Max held on tight to the air in his lungs. He was stalling. Just a few more seconds. Suddenly he began to doubt himself. He began to feel afraid. Was this the only way? He tried to find some thing to cling to, a reason to stay; some beauty so perfect that it could save his life. There was none, of course. There had been so many long ago, he thought. So many questions, so much beauty – so much life and experience ahead of him. Stop it. Virgil’s right – just let go. He had nothing to be afraid of - life was the terrifying place. Life was where the demons dwelt. But death would be different. Empty. He longed for the emptiness. He longed for the nothingness. He longed for nothing.

Max snapped his eyes tightly shut, and as the darkness enveloped him, he slowly let out the air from his lungs, and it poured out into a torrent of bubbles which disappeared above his head, popping away to nothing on the surface. He was ready now. He began to feel his body sinking ever so slightly deeper into the bathtub.

Just as he began to open his mouth, and prepared to let the lukewarm water course into his lungs, he began to hear something. A loud beeping noise was bubbling through the water, and he instantly recognised it as his smoke alarm. Without really thinking about what he was doing, Max instantly sat up in the bath and the piercing sound became instantly louder as the water drained from his ears.

‘What?’ Virgil looked down at him from his perch at the side of the bath, seeming undisturbed by the whole situation.

‘That noise,’ said Max, trembling. ‘There’s someone in my house.’

‘There’s no one in your house, Max, it’s just in your imagination, just get on with it, before you lose your balls.’

But Max knew what he was hearing – this wasn’t his imagination. He climbed to his feet and negotiated his shaking legs out of the bathtub and onto the bathroom floor. For a second he stood motionless, just listening to the piercing beeping which stung his ears, and the drip-drip-drip of his saturated suit depositing his bathwater onto the tiled floor.

‘For Christ’s sake, Max, it’s nothing,’ snapped Virgil. ‘Just finish it – now.’

But Max had already begun to make his way towards the hall, apparently with little care for Virgil’s pushing, leaving tiny pools of glistening water in his path.

There was someone there alright, Max could tell. After a thirty year career as a detective, Max had learned to trust his intincts. His flat didn’t feel right, it felt disturbed. There was definitely someone there. When he reached the hall, he began to slow his pace down, and he crept, almost tiptoeing towards the kitchen. As he reached the illuminated archway that led into the kitchen, he felt many emotions welling inside of him, but mostly he felt anger. I can’t even kill myself without someone breaking in and interrupting me. He looked around for a weapon, and after seeing nothing more suitable, he picked up a cane from the hat stand in his hallway. The cane had a real ivory handle and had belonged to Max’s grandfather – it had been his pride and joy and Max was certain that he would disapprove of him using it as a weapon.

Slowly he tiptoed into his kitchen to see his toaster spewing smoke, and a tall, dark haired man in dirty, ripped clothes standing in front of it, waving a towel to try to dissipate the smoke.

‘Who are you?’ snapped Max from the archway that led into the hall, his cane held defensively in front of him. ‘What do you want from me?’

The stranger instantly swung around, and stood, frozen on the spot looking at Max, before bolting for the door. Max could hear the squelch-squelch-squelch coming from underneath his feet as he ran after the intruder. A much younger man than Max, he quickly bolted out of the house, and left without explanation.

Max stood at his front door, which was still swinging open, and listened to the man’s footsteps echo down the stairwell. He knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of catching him, so he stood there and listened until the footsteps died away and once again all he could hear was the drip-drip-drip of his soaking clothes.

‘No one here then?’ Virgil’s voice coming from the hallway startled Max. ‘I told you it was nothing.’

‘There was a man,’ snapped Max. ‘He was in here just now. His clothes were all ripped and he looked like shit. And he was making…’ Max walked over to the toaster on his marble worktop, which had now stopped spewing smoke, and pulled from it a charred slice of Hovis. ‘…Toast.’

‘Oh, come on Max,’ sighed Virgil, ‘you have to be kidding.’ He began to walk slowly towards Max, rolling his eyes. ‘You mean to tell me that at the exact minute you’re finally ready to do it – that precise second we’re gonna do what we talked about all these years, a man walks into your house and ruins it? Bullshit, Max – you’re full of shit. That’s just a little too convenient, mate.’

‘He was here, in my house,’ pressed Max. ‘I saw him; I’m not making it up.’
‘If you keep doing this you’ll never escape, Max,’ said Virgil, turning his back in disgust and walking back towards the bathroom, raising his voice more and more the further away he got. ‘There’ll always be an excuse; you’ll always find a reason to pussy out. This isn’t a game, Max. This is atonement.

Max dropped the charred toast onto the worktop, and turned to follow Virgil. Maybe he was right. Maybe he did make this guy up. It was very convenient timing after all. As he turned, he noticed something lying there next to the toaster. It was a scrap of paper. He picked it up and read the handwriting that was scrawled across it.

          ‘Dear Max, d’

Dear Max? He was here. Max hadn’t imagined him. But who the hell is he? And how does he know my name?


Kathy Heath clambered up the stairs, struggling to keep the recently cracked plant pot in her hands held together, and to keep the banana plant which it housed from falling to the ground. She now cursed herself for lugging it all the way up to Marchmont; but when she had seen it at the office, she thought of her recently departed new boss and decided to return it. The detective under whom she had worked, Max Milligan, had left recently (she wasn’t quite sure if had left of his own accord or not - it was all a bit strange and sudden), and he had forgotten to take his plant, (which he adored), with him. He had always seemed such a sad and lonely creature, and Kathy thought it would be a good deed to return it, and also she wanted to wish detective Milligan all the best in the future.

Soil was beginning to leak from the cracks now; as Kathy began the last flight of stairs. Some idiot had come tearing down the stairs and through the close, knocking Kathy, and the plant pot, over in the process. He had stopped to apologise, but not long enough to help Kathy up, or to help retrieve the cracked plant pot. Bloody idiot, thought Kathy. Why can’t people look where they’re going?

Kathy scaled the last few steps and came to the third floor, panting for breath, and immediately spotted the door labelled ‘Milligan 3F/2’. As she walked over to it, she noticed that it was sitting slightly ajar.

Max sat in his armchair, still dripping wet, holding his ivory handled cane across his lap. The world in front of him was a blurred sea of colours, rippling in drunken waves. Suddenly, through the silence, Max began to hear creaking coming from the hallway. Yes… footsteps – he’s back, he thought. He took a tighter grip of his cane and stumbled to his feet, and before long, a figure appeared in the doorway.

‘What do you want from me?’ roared Max at the top of his lungs. ‘Why are you in my house?’ Then, as he looked closer, he saw that this was no man. As his eyes began to focus, he realised that it was a woman, standing timidly in the doorway holding a banana plant.

‘Sorry, Detective Milligan… I… I didn’t mean to disturb you… I was just bringing your… and … and your door was open…’

Max looked closer and recognised the girl. ‘Kathy?’

‘Yes, Detective Milligan. Sorry, I just wanted to bring you your plant… it’s just you always seemed to love it so much, I thought you should have it with you…’ Kathy eyed Max’s soaking clothes and the cane which he held defensively in front of him. ‘Are you… okay, Detective Milligan?

Max sighed and slunk back into his seat. ‘I’m fine,’ he growled.

‘I’m… I’m sorry about your plant… it got a bit cracked. Some guy knocked me over as I was coming up the stairs, and-’

‘A guy? What guy?’ interrupted Max.

‘I don’t know,’ said Kathy, still visibly quite afraid. ‘Just some guy… he came tearing down the stairs like the devil was chasing him.

Maybe he was, thought Max. ‘Was this guy wearing a green jacket and a baseball cap?’

‘Yeah,’ replied Kathy. ‘Do you know him?’

Max coughed and lit a cigarette, which obscured his face in a cloud of smoke. ‘No,’ he said, almost laughing, ‘but he seems to know me. He broke in here just now, to my flat.’

‘My god,’ replied Kathy, feeling the fear that had been welling in her slip away, ‘are you okay? Did he hurt you…what did he take?’

‘Nothing,’ growled Max, feverishly puffing at his smoke. ‘In fact it looked like he was leaving something…’

Kathy took a couple of steps towards her old boss, which clearly made Max uncomfortable.

‘Thanks for bringing me up my plant, Kathy...’ he said, ‘…but I think you’d better go now. I… I need to be alone just now.’

Still Kathy advanced ever closer. ‘Are you hurt? Was there a struggle? Is that why you’re all wet?’

She was getting far too close, and now, more than ever, Max needed privacy. ‘Please Kathy,’ he shouted, startling the girl. ‘I – need – to – be – alone!’

Kathy, ever the Good Samaritan, put aside her own fears of the ever more irritated, clearly drunk man in front of her, to ensure that he was okay. ‘But… detective Milligan… you’re soaked to the skin and out of breath…You’ve just had a break in! I need to make sure you’re okay before I-’

‘Leave me alone!’ roared Max, trying to get to his feet. ‘Don’t people knock anymore, anyway?’ He had to get rid of her. He couldn’t bear human company just now. He needed to be alone.

‘…the door was open…’

‘That doesn’t mean you can come waltzing in here, sticking your nose into my affairs!’ Max got up and began to stumble towards the hall, reaching for his overcoat, snapping again. ‘If you won’t bloody well leave, then I will. Show yourself out, Kathy.’ And with that, he left Kathy alone in his flat, slamming the door behind him.

Kathy stood, dumbstruck, still holding the cracked banana plant in Max Milligan’s hallway, desperately trying to make sense of what had just happened. How ungrateful, she thought.