"The Regulars: Part 1" by Tyler Baker
It was at age eight that Priscilla first encountered Death. It appeared while she was bed ridden on a tar black morning in her mum’s drafty Liverpool home. While mum tossed restlessly in the next room, Priscilla lay wide awake, her round, damp face a fierce scarlet, struggling to make out the broad-shouldered outline of a beast blowing hot air at the foot of her straw bed. At first she had convinced herself that mum, as absurd as it seemed, had moved the coat hanger into her bedroom while she slept. Delirious and feverish as she was, she could still measure the unlikelihood of such bizarre behavior from her mum. It isn’t real, she thought, close your eyes and it will go away. Priscilla closed her lids so tight it hurt her dry eyeballs and she suppressed her breathing. Her mum tossed behind the thin black wall on her left and the room fell into nauseating silence. It was shattered by a slow THUMP THUMP THUMP on the floorboards. Priscilla thought it sounded like Uncle Douglas’ wooden leg on the hardwood. Now the asthmatic lungs of the beast were heaving close beside. Its breath tickled her wet forehead and smelled like ash and metal. She kept her eyes shut. If she opened them there could be no more playing possum. It could pounce and claw, she thought, with black nails and chew with long white teeth. She aimed to scream but only succeeded in emptying all air from her lungs.
The beast rummaged, a sound like nails scratching on a knitted sweater. A flash of light came. Then a thick scent of tobacco smoke. Huffing fiercely, she sought again to scream, but projected only air. Then, in a low smoker’s voice, the beast spoke: “You are the wrong child,” there was a faint whistling sound as it presumably took a drag, “forgive my intrusion.” The haze of smoke lingered beneath Priscilla’s nostrils for a moment before dissipating without a trace.
With little hope, Priscilla ventured to scream once more and surprised herself with a murderous shriek so shrill and horrible it might have punched a hole through the wall. At last she had the courage to open her eyes and she did. No beast. No coat hanger. The bedroom door burst open and she saw, with great reassurance, the figure of her mum coming toward her. “Mum-- monster! A coat monster!” she shrieked. She wrapped her arms around her daughter and held her until Priscilla nodded out sometime in the middle of the morning.
Priscilla awoke alone in her bedroom. Her black hair matted and her whole body sticky with sweat. A dream. Priscilla reached for her water glass on the rickety bedside table. With her two small hands, she tipped it up and gulped until it was empty. As she returned the glass she noticed a strange object resting there. She picked it up-- a shale pen engraved with unrecognizable symbols.
Priscilla showed the pen to her mum, who examined over spectacles with one brow raised all while doubtfully biting her lower lip. It was not enough. Priscilla could never believably describe the event to her mum. In fact, the more Priscilla tried, the more her mum dismissed her story, thinking it delusional. A fever dream. Nothing more. She eventually managed to at least partially convince Priscilla of the same. Still, Priscilla kept the fountain pen in a tin box full of knick knacks in her desk drawer and the box eventually came with her to Waterloo, London where she met her husband, Nigel.
The beast didn’t come back except in her dreams-- dreams that became so regular she ceased to question them. It was useless to ponder the whos, whys, and whats because no explanation fit in with rational thought. So she took the encounter with the beast and subsequent dreams and tucked them away somewhere safe in the attic of her brain where they could be accessed at a moment’s notice. They were filed and ready, waiting for the missing pieces of information. Closer to the cellar of her brain where curiosity tingled and terror lurked, Priscilla held a desperate desire to find these missing pieces. This she held at bay-- fully convinced there was no need to go looking for answers because the answers would someday find her, whether on her deathbed or waiting at the meat counter of Sam’s Grocery.
In the spring of 1916, Priscilla’s husband, Nigel, was conscripted into service on the western front of the war. By summer, most of the women in Priscilla’s building had been delivered the dreaded “It is my painful duty to inform you” letter, including Priscilla, though the letter in question had been intended for Mrs. Parsons in the flat below. The Postie had mistakenly delivered it to Priscilla’s box.
With a twist of her wrist, Priscilla was inside her apartment, tan letter from the War Office fluttering in her gloved hand. The eight year old girl had grown up. Her face which had been boyish and round was now thin and angular. Her dark brows bobbed over blue eyes like ink-black dashes, her nose pale and sharp like a piece of shattered porcelain. She didn’t bother with the letter opener, she moved to the kitchen counter and tore it open with trembling fingers.
“It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death
of (No.) 15928 (Rank) Corporal
(Name) Basil Parsons (Regiment) Royal Regina Rifles which occurred at
Somme, Hauts-de-France on the 1st of July, and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council at your loss, the cause of death was
Killed in action
If any articles of private property left by the deceased are found, they will be forwarded to this office, but some time will probably elapse before their receipt and when received they may not be disposed of until authority is received by the War Office.
Application regarding disposal of any such personal effects, or of any amount that may eventually be found to be due to the late soldier’s estate, should be addressed to “The Secretary, War Office, London S.W.,” and marked outside “Effects.”
Your obedient servant,
In charge Infantry 3 District.
Officer in charge of Records.
She stood over the letter, the ink dashes over her round eyes eased and her white teeth showed in a downward crescent as she mulled something over. Before she could finish her thought, Priscilla felt an unmistakable warmth in her crotch. Her period had come prematurely. Her knickers were certainly ruined and her undergarments would have to be painstakingly washed. As she stood damp, she was struck with the realization that the letter would have to be delivered to Mrs. Parsons. Priscilla snapped a crusty rag from the oven and hobbled across the sitting-room to the water closet like a one-legged bird.
The floorplan of the Gilmour’s flat was identical to that of the 20 other tenants living there. The front door opened up into the sitting-room which in turn opened into the sparse kitchen in the right corner and a doorway near the threshold of the kitchen led to the bed-room in the left corner. On the immediate left of the front door lived the water-closet. Upon entrance to the flat the guest was first seduced by the fresh scent of lemon and neutralized by the leaf-green wallpaper. The walnut sofa, against the right-hand wall was upholstered in mint green fabric and stitched in cream thread and cream buttons at every intersection. In front of the sofa stood a small round coffee table with a square of intricately laced white fabric. Since Nigel shipped out, Priscilla had rearranged the furniture smartly making the space look much bigger than it had any right to. Nigel had preferred the sofa at the center of the sitting room and had insisted on the space being as colorless as possible, though in his absence Priscilla allowed herself permission to ignore each of Nigel’s particularities. Two weeks after Nigel had gone, she tore down the original tan wallpaper and replaced it with leaf-green all while laughing from the bottom of her stomach and grinning like a blue-eyed demon.
Priscilla dropped her bottom on the cold tile of the water-closet and unlaced her calf-skin boots. They had cost her three and a half pounds and were her most valued possession. Soft chocolate leather sporting an inch and a half heel, and black laces zigging and zagging up to a sienna bow at the top. They had been advertised: “Stylish and comfortable-- with a roomy toe!” Nigel never would have allowed her to buy them, so she’d slipped out in secret, with money she’d earned honestly while Nigel taught at the college. She had had good sense to buy them before Britain declared war-- now a similar pair simply couldn’t be found. Priscilla herself thought it strange, almost supernatural, the urge to buy work boots hit her while on her knees scrubbing the hardwood of her own flat one day in early 1914, when she had no use for work boots and Britain appeared to be avoiding war altogether.
Priscilla pulled off her knickers and soiled undergarments and dropped them in the sink. She could reach just high enough from the floor to run the faucet. She soiled her rag in the cold stream and meticulously wiped her thighs.
The words, I will have to cry, suddenly reached Priscilla’s lips. She went to the bedroom, put on comfortable clothes and re-read Mrs. Parsons letter before putting it in a new envelope, re-addressing the face and reapplying the stamps with a bit of adhesive. She crumpled the corners slightly making it look as though it had traveled, set it down and returned to the water closet to practice in front of the mirror. “I’m so dreadfully sorry. So dr-- terribly sorry Mrs. Parsons, I’ve received one of your letters-- It’s from the War Office. If there’s anything you need from me, don’t hesitate to ask.” Water streamed from her eyes, collecting in the pinched corners of her cheeks and dripped from her chin. The sharpness of her own bawling pierced her ear drums in the small tile chamber. She ceased, her cheeks wet and red and gawked in the mirror as though admiring herself. She pulled the chain hanging from the fixture on the ceiling and the light went out.