‘Balance’ – short story


tophat

Dragging the quivering form over to the bath, Abe twisted the tap off and dipped his hand in to test the temperature.

‘What the devil are you doing?’ Snapped the tall man in the top hat. His sing-song voice rang over the tiled walls with a shrill, grating quality.

Right, right. He was not actually having a bath! Wrapping his hands around either sides of the restrained man’s head, he hoisted him over the ceramic edge and plunged his face into the steaming water. The man writhed and struggled, his hands straining at the rope that held them in place. In time his body spasmed as the life ebbed out of him, and he slumped to the tiled floor when Abe released his own grip. Slapping against the wet surface, the man’s face was yellow and bloated.

‘Bravo,’ sneered the man in the top hat, twiddling a handlebar moustache as he watched Abe pull the body out and into the living room. Swinging his cane, he jerked upright and strode through behind him. His pointed coattails swung freely; black heels clicked metronomically on the tiled floor. Taking a seat on the sofa, he viewed in amusement as Abe struggled to lift a solid steel hatch door in the far corner of the room. As he did so, he played with a variety of sharp instruments arranged with precision on a white dishtowel atop the coffee table. Selecting a pair of scissors, he held them up to his eyeline.

‘All these toys I left out for you, Abe, and you choose the most physically demanding option! Why, you could have plucked out his heart with these scissors here! After a little entry work, of course.’

Abe glared round as he kicked the body into the dark recesses of the hatch, and drew a large rug back over it.

‘You must be more creative in your destruction, Abe! Lord knows, I try to give you helpful prompts, I try to instill subtle suggestions, but you continue bludgeoning and drowning in the most crude manner, and making the most awful mess! Look at all this water leaking under your bathroom door, you’ll have to mop it all up now.’

Staggering over to an armchair, Abe collapsed into it and held his head in his hands.

‘I’m sorry, Abe,’ chimed the man in the top hat, ‘but we must continue, and you must make more of an effort. I’m reducing your area as punishment. This is what you want, but you can’t have it unless you invest the appropriate amount of time and effort.’

Smacking his hand across the armchair rest, Abe rose up and advanced on the top hat man.

‘Why must you criticise me in everything I do!’ He exclaimed.

Again, the top hat man ran his finely trimmed handlebar moustache through his fingertips, curling it upwards at the edges as he smirked at Abe.

‘Because I take pleasure in other people’s misfortune,’ he explained in a bouncing, acute tone, licking his lips and slicking his moustache back into place. ‘Now, to work!’ He clapped his hands together and sprang up, pulling another thick, velvet rug aside to reveal a second hatch door. Prising it open, he extracted a struggling, emaciated man from its depths, hurling him across the room to Abe. From the depths of the pit below, anguished screams and dirty, pleading hands rose up.

‘Quiet!’ the top hat man bawled. ‘Quiet, we’ve had quite enough of your idle chatter for one lifetime!’ Kicking the hatch closed again, he skipped over to Abe, spinning his cane in excitement.

‘Now…smaller, smaller!’ His cane continued twirling and the room shrank until the walls were condensed into a tight passageway and the ceiling lowered to be touching the tips of their heads. Abe stood cradling the skinny, ill-looking man at one end, while the top hat man skipped impatiently at the other.

‘Come along, now! Use your initiative! Whatever will you do? Perhaps you might hang him? Only, there is no rope – and nothing to hang him from!’ He burst into fits of wild cackling, pointing his cane like a gun and simulating gunshot noises as Abe rubbed his forehead and thought hastily. He began to drag the frail man across the length of the corridor, only to be interrupted by a tortured cry from the transportee. Looking down, he saw the man had been impaled upon a pair of garden shears lying on the floor of the thin hallway. He was bleeding profusely, blood gurgling in a red torrent to form a thick puddle between the two men standing at either end. The shears had been sitting amongst the other implements on the coffee table only a moment before. Abe’s eyes narrowed with disgust as he looked over at the top hat man, dancing with delight in the recesses of the dark corridor.

‘Oh, how wonderful! Oh, that was so much more enjoyable! See how he reaches pathetically for his wound, see how he struggles to contain the flow of blood! Ah, this is much more interesting than your boring bathtub dalliances!’ He skipped over and kicked the injured man in the face, poking him repetitively with his cane.

‘Why are you determined to see people die as horribly as possible?’ bellowed Abe, his face red and flustered.

‘As I said! Because I take pleasure in other people’s misfortune! Must I perpetually repeat myself? I am a product of your people, after all! I can only mimic their characteristics. How else would I end up?’

‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to take it back,’ sighed Abe, wiping drops from the corners of his eyes. The top hat man squeezed up close to him in the tight passageway, leaning in to breathe on his face. His yellow teeth ground together as he patted Abe on the shoulder.

‘There, there, Abe. You must remember…you must remember, you are better off alone! Think of all the idle chatter you have been forced to tolerate in your lifetime! You want to be alone, you told me that, and I am here to help you! You want to be able to study yourself, to learn who you are, to explore the possibilities! You are very modern! But you cannot do it with this incessant, hum-drum squawking around you! You have told me how it drives you to distraction, how you cannot wait to get home from work, how you consider it all a waste of life, how there is no true interaction; only little puppets saying the same words in different places!’ At this he rose to a high-pitched, mocking squeal and danced off, pirhouetting round in circles and tossing his cane in the air.

‘But why does it have to be this way?’ Moaned Abe, staring down at the dying man on the floor.

‘Ah, but it must!’ declared the top hat man, ‘It must, it must, it must! You must kill each and every one of them, it is the only way. It must be a sacrificial purge! It is not simply enough to ignore them, or to turn off your phone; they’ll keep coming back! They’ll email you! They’ll text! And, other things…I don’t know them all!’ Again his frenzied cackling dominated the thin corridor.

Abe stumbled over the figure on the floor, whispering apologies, and made to grab the top hat man by the shoulder. ‘I’ll have to suffer for this, though, won’t I? In another life? After all this is done? I’ll pay for this, won’t I?’

The top hat man slapped his hand off and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, pulling him close.

‘Pay for this? Another life? What on earth are you babbling about? Who has filled your head with such nonsense? It’s all these people, I tell you! Listening to their silly, silly stories!’ He flew across the hall and aimed another spiteful kick at the bleeding man, who wailed.

‘Now, as we were! Enough semantics! To your work! I’m bored of the easy pickings here! You want peace and quiet, we must remove them!’

Dragging him out the widening doorway of the flat, Abe found himself propelled at speed to his office at work. In a fleeting moment he was behind his desk, chewing his lower lip, sweating, and glancing at the phone. The top hat man crouched beneath his desk, trying to suppress a fit of giggles.

‘Now,’ he whispered, ‘you phone for Atkins. Have him come in here, then shoot him in the face with this!’ Here he triumphantly presented Abe with a small plastic water pistol. Abe looked down, confused.

‘But this won’t kill him,’ he protested, ‘it’ll just make him wet.’

‘Yes, but it will embarrass him!’ The top hat man explained. ‘It will make him feel silly! Then, you can shoot him, with this!’ This time he strained to pull a rocket launcher out from underneath the desk, failed, and gave up. Abe’s eyes drifted back to the water pistol.

‘I don’t think his being wet will make him very embarrassed. It’s probably more embarrassing for me,’ he said, glancing down at the impatient-looking top hat man.

‘Listen to me, Abe! You have been humiliated by these people! Always talking over you, always ignoring you, always doing better than you, not tripping on the stairs yesterday in front of the nice-looking new girl! Soon you will be all by yourself to do as you will, but you must allow yourself revenge whilst you still can!’ He tried to twirl his cane but there was no room underneath the desk, so he simply banged it on the floor.

‘I think you’re being unimaginative now,’ began Abe, but at that point Atkins came flying into the office.

‘What’re you up to, Abe?’ He shouted. ‘What’s all this noise? Why aren’t you finishing your report?’ His chubby face rippled and a fat finger was extended to wave disapprovingly in Abe’s direction.

Abe glanced down. The top hat man had two thumbs stuck up, grinning in reassurance. Raising the water pistol, Abe aimed a jet of cold water at Atkin’s face.

There was a silence. Atktins wiped a meaty hand down the length of his face and waddled over to the desk, planting his left hand in a balled fist on its surface.

‘Listen, buddy. I don’t know what you’ve got going on. I don’t know why you don’t talk to anyone; why you scurry in and out of here without a word either way, but if you think-‘

A piercing shriek stopped the interaction in its tracks and the top hat man leaped from under the desk, bringing an axe whistling down on Atkin’s head, who crumpled to the ground.

‘Taking too long, Abe!’ He screeched, prancing around the office, perching on his cane and swivelling his hips fluidly. ‘We must make haste if we are to succeed in finding you solitude! Ah, the glory of being alone! Luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice; aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absense of others – oh Abe, you cannot quantify such beauty! Come, come, let us complete the destruction!’ His eyes were ablaze with passion and his moustache stood taut and firm as he bowed before Abe, determined and stoic in his mission.

Grabbing the axe from Atkin’s head, Abe swung it with precision at the top hat man. It cut his top hat in two, and he cried in anger. The second swing of the axe caught its target full in the chest; the gangling frame collapsed to the ground, and he clutched at his heart at his last breathes escaped his body. His moustache wilted at its edges and flopped over his chin, and his coattails seemed to extend; leaking in streaked, black lines across the cream carpet.

‘Abe, oh Abe, how could you? How could you throw yourself from the gritty path to transcendence so abruptly? You don’t understand what it is to be human; your mind has been warped by all the illusions you’ve absorbed! I could have shown you happiness and peace beyond your wildest dreams. A lifetime of profound meditation; the self as pure being, the splendour of the universe unfolding, glimmering revelation by glimmering realisation, before you, and you alone!’

His sparkling eyes dulled as he hacked up blood and squirmed on the office floor.

‘I only wanted what was best for you, and to remove the barriers preventing you from fulfilling your unique, solitary potential! And also, to kill everyone in the world, horribly. Oh, Abe…’

A dying, croaked hiss drifted from his lips.

‘Whatever you do…don’t buy into all this…restaurant nonsense…’

With a final bout of manic twitching, he was gone. His tall body faded away as the afternoon sun streamed in copper folds through the window, and Abe saw Atkins jerking into motion on the ground nearby. Suddenly the phone crackled with irritable rings, and the babbling woman from reception came rushing in to ask him what type of coffee he’d like from Starbucks.

***