Aesthetica Creative Writing Awards 2019

“He never answers,” says the real estate agent, replacing the phone in the cradle.

“Why do you bother calling him?” he asks.

“We have to protect ourselves. We might be held responsible.”

“Can I move in, then?”

“The lease doesn’t expire until tomorrow,” says the agent, looking worried, “But she told me they were leaving yesterday, so I supose it’s all right.”

“You spoke to her?”

“She phoned.” The agent slides a standard lease form across the desk. The man signs and initials each page without reading and pushes it back. The agent checks the signature.

“Mr Seneca—interesting name. Russian?”

“Nero ordered him to commit suicide so he slit his wrists in the bath.”

“Well, don’t do anything like that until after the inspection.” Serious. The agent knows from experience never to joke about tenancy matters

“Electricity and water?”

“Still in the previous tenant’s name. Rent is due first Monday of the month. Here are the keys.”

They shake hands. He puts the lease in his rucksack, the keys in his pocket. The agent turns to another customer. When he looks back, the man is still there.

“Is there anything else?”

He smiles and waves and leaves, carefully closing the door.

“You get all sorts,” the agent says to the new customer.

He stands outside a well-worn, two-storey suburban house, a corflute “Leasing Now!” on the front lawn. Down the street, a neighbour curses his disobedient dog, He inserts the key in the lock and pushes open the door.

In the living room, he opens his rucksack and removes an envelope, which he places carefully on the table. He makes an inspection of the house. In the kitchen, two glasses smelling of whisky in the sink. A dirty teatowel on the draining board. The refrigerator is empty. The cupboards are bare, apart from some packets of motel instant coffee and sugar. In the bathroom, he notices a hook high on the wall. He opens his rucksack and removes a length of rope, climbs on a chair, throws the rope over the hook and—still holding the rope—steps off the chair. He hangs in the air for a moment, until the hook snaps and he drops to the floor.

At the sound of a motorbike revving outside he freezes, and listens. He climbs the stairs, avoiding the step that creaks. In the front bedroom he peeks through the blind. The street is empty. He looks around the room: the bed has been slept in, there are clothes hanging in the wardrobe, female underwear in a drawer, and a pair of men’s shoes protruding from beneath the bed.

He shrugs and goes back downstairs to the bathroom.

There is a portable shelf across the bath. He takes items from his rucksack one-by-one and arranges them neatly on the shelf: a tin of razor blades, a rubber tube, a felt-tipped pen, a bottle of whisky, a plastic glass, a 30 year old Walkman and a copy of Tacitus “History of Rome”. He puts in the bath plug and opens the water fawcets, holding his hand in the stream to check the temperature. He pushes down Play on the Walkman and Lang-Lang launches into Chopin’s sad Prelude No, 15.

He closes his eyes and listens for a moment—then his eyes snap open and he hurries back upstairs.

He looks again at the shoes under the bed. They have feet inside them. He grips the feet and slides out a man-sized, plastic package, wrapped with duct tape. Through the plastic, he can just make out fingers, a navel, a penis, a face. Difficult to recognise because the inside of the plastic is smeared with blood. He shrugs, pushes the body back under the bed and returns to the bathroom.

He undresses, folding his cothes neatly onto the chair, uncaps the felt pen and carefully draws dotted lines on both wrists, steps into the bath, pours himelf a generous glass of whisky and relaxes as Lang-Lang executes a sensual change of key.

His eyes snap open at the sound of the front door opening.

A woman holding a drycleaner’s bag lets herself in and closes the door. She hears the music and walks towards the bathroom. The man steps out into the corridor. He is naked.

“Holy shit!” says the woman, “Who are you?”

“The agent said you had moved out.”

“The lease ends tomorrow.”

“They gave me the key,” he says—pointing to the table.

“Well, you’d better use it to let yourself out.”

Realising he is naked, he ducks back into the bathroom. He comes back dressed in a bathrobe and carrying his rucksack and the whisky bottle.

“What a mix-up. Can I offer you a drink?”

“Fuck no! I want you to get out.”

He insists, “We need to discuss this.”

“No discussion. The house is mine until tomorrow. If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”

“I don’t think you’ll do that.” He walks to the sink, rinses out the two glasses, fried them on the teatowel, pours two fingers of whisky into each and hands one to her.  “Sorry there’s no ice.”

She looks at it, unable to decide whether to drink or not.

“Who’s your friend upstairs?” he asks.


“Under the bed.”

Her lip quivers, “His name is Jámon. We were going to be married.”

“You had an argument?”

“No!” she cries, tears well in her eyes, “This morning we made passionate love. He tripped on the mat on the way to the bathroom and cracked his head on the bedstead.”

“You didn’t think to call an ambulance?”

“I panicked. I ran. I’ve spent the day walking around wondering what to do.” She sobs again.

“He’s wrapped in plastic and there’s blood all over him.”

“I told you—I panicked.”

“And the first thing you did was have your clothes dry cleaned.”

The woman blows her nose and looks him directly in the eyes. “Will you help me?”

“I’m rather busy this afternoon. I have plans.”

“Having a bath.”

The man nods. She reaches out and strokes his cheek. “I’m sure you could put your plans on hold.”

“This is rather awkward,” he says, reacing for his rucksack, “You see…”

“While you’re thinking about it, I’ll just use the little girls room.” She walks to the bathroom. He tries to head her off, but she closes the door and locks it. He takes the whisky bottle and the rucksack into the living room and sits dejectedly on the sofa.

After quite a long time, the woman emerges, holding Tacitus in one hand and a razor blade in the other. “Show me your wrists,” she demands.

He holds them out before him, displaying the doted lines, “I have cancer. I want to spare my family the pain and expense of a slow and lingering death.”

“How long have you got?”

“A few months. Maybe just weeks.”

The woman picks up the envelope from the table, “Who’s Val? Your wife? Soon to be widow?” She opens the envelope and reads the note inside. “Not your wife. Not even a woman. Valeri, a Russian. How much are you in for?”

“Ten million. Give or take a million.”

“And if Valeri finds you, it’s not going to be Roman senator drifting gently into oblivion in a warm bath accompanied by Chopin, is it?”

He shakes his head.

“Why this house?”

“Any house would have done.”

“Do you know the landlord?” He just looks at her, expressionless. “Oh shit! You do know the landlord.”

“Valeri owns a lot of houses,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“So you’re counting on the cops finding this note and putting two and two together? I’ll bet this isn’t even your handwriting.”

He sighs, “If I have to go, Valeri goes with me.”

He reaches into his rucksack and pulls out a Glock 9mm pistol with duct tape on the grip and points it at her. “And so will you, you smart-arsed bitch. I don’t know what game you’re playing, but…”

She disarms him with a lightning-fast martial arts move. She is a pro. She sits on his chest and points the gun at his eye. “A dangerous toy for a suicidal idiot.”

“How did you find me?” gasps the man.

She laughs, “You think I am…?”

“He nods.

“Do you know the guy under the bed?”

He walks ahead of her with the gun at his head as they ascend the stairs to the bedroom. They both miss the squeaking step. She holds the gun on him as he pulls the body out and rips open the bag to reveal the face.

He whistles in admiration, “Kirov! How did you manage that?” He looks at her seriously, “Who are you exactly?”

“Did you really steal ten million from Valeri?”

He nods.

“Where is it?”

“It’s safe.” He points to the body, “How did you do it? He’s twice your size. And a pro.”

She shrugs, “With men it’s either sex or money. Kirov wanted both, but he couldn’t get it up without some help.”

“Ectasy? Speed?”

She shakes her head, “Some guys want to be punished, other guys want you to be their mother. With Kirov it was BDSM and suffocation. I guess he kept the bag on too long.” Her laugh was harsh. “What is it with you, Seneca? Warm baths? Bleeding?”

“Roman history.”

Her face says she doesn’t know whether to believe him. “Let’s return to the subject of Valeri’s money.” She cocks the gun.

“If I die, neither of us will have it.”

“If I let you live?”

“You don’t know Valeri.”

“I know Valeri very well.”

The man thinks a moment, “Why don’t you show me how Kirov liked it?”

“You’d trust me to pull the bag off in time?”

“The money will keep me safe.”

She puts the gun on the bed, removes her drycleaning from the bag, pulls the plastic back like a foreskin, and drapes it over his head.

The house is silent. The afternoon sun streams through the amber glass on the front door and dust motes hang in the air. In the kitchen, a cockroach squats on the sink and waves its antennae. In the bathroom, the tap drips into a full bath. The sound of the drips is amplified and distorted until is becomes the woosh-woosh of a heart pumping blood through a bluging carotid artery…

In the bedroom, he is struggling for breath inside the drycleaning bag—the plastic is sucked into a dome inside his mouth as his lungs scream in agony. She stands behind him, her arms wrapped around his waist, sealing him in.

“Isn’t this more sexy than a warm bath, Seneca? Are you getting hard, Seneca? Are you looking forward to all the things we could do…” He shakes his head frantically. She suddenly releases her grip, comes around to his front and grins down at the steel-hard erection straining the plastic at his groin. “Well, that was certainly a success,” she laughs. She kneels down, reaches for it and opens her mouth…


The explosion shatters the tranquility, and echoes through the house. The dust motes shimmer. The cockroach disappears down the plughole. The pistol clatters to the floor. The man stands by the bed, then his hands tear open the plastic vacuum sealing his face, and he takes a huge gulp of air. The woman lies at his feet, powder burns on her mouth, an exit hole in the back of her head.

He looks up at the sound of motorbikes pulling up to the kerb outside.

He walks downstairs, a few strips of plastic fluttering from his bathrobe, He opens the front door.


© Ian Hart, 2018