The upshot of that last job—along with the injuries myself and Welger sustained—was that all my tools were destroyed, all my tools and a full set of gauges badly burned out. I was sorting through them when Welger swung into the yard.
‘How are they?’ he called, climbing out of the van. ‘Are they bad?’
‘They’re fucked,’ I said, ruefully. ‘Every one of them.’
Welger bent down and picked one up. It looked gentle and pliant in his large hand; you could feel the dying warmth of it. He held it to his ear for a moment and then laid it down.
‘We used to drown bags of these in the tide when I was a child,’ he said.
Something in me bristled. ‘These gauges have a full pedigree,’ I started. ‘Lineal descendants of a German K9.’
‘That means nothing to me,’ Welger said.
‘Beautiful pieces of work,’ I insisted. Why was I going on like this? Welger was looking at me. ‘There’s a three-year waiting list for a full set of these,’ I added, on a final angry note.
Welger stood up. ‘I know a man who can fix them,’ he said. ‘Throw them in the back of the van, I’ll run them over to him.’
‘Will I fuck throw them in the back of the van. Those gauges are licensed to my name; they have to go to a registered lab for recalibration.’
Welger shook his head. ‘If those gauges turn up on someone’s workbench and they download the last readings off them, it will be a long time before you’re issued with another set and that’s as sure as you’re standing there.’
He was telling the truth and I knew it. And it was a mark of how difficult that last job had been and the extent to which it had scrambled my own sense of the future that I had not foreseen this. And then Welger decided it for me completely.
‘Please yourself,’ he said, ‘but I guarantee that if you turn those things into a registered lab you will be out of work for five years; that’s how long it will take for you to get through the screening process and get a new set. They will know where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing and that’ll be the end of it.’
I made no pretence of mulling it over any longer. I gathered them up and left them into the back of the van. Welger closed the door on them. ‘That wasn’t what brought me over,’ he said.
I raised my hands. ‘If it’s money… ’
‘It’s not money,’ Welger said. ‘Calm down, it’s something else.’ He put his hand up against the side of the van and closed his eyes. A dull note of empathy swung through me. I knew exactly what he was feeling. That awful tiredness that washed through my body periodically, leaving it parched and hollow, the trailing flare of fireworks behind the eyes for minutes at a time afterwards which made concentration so difficult.
‘I’ve been on tough jobs in my time,’ Welger continued, ‘but these flashbacks are not like anything I’ve ever had before.’
‘I know, I’ve been getting them too.’
A look of relief crossed Welger’s face. ‘And I can’t tell the time from Adam,’ he continued. ‘It’s all scrambled on me. What time is it now?’
‘It’s getting on to four o clock.’
Welger shook his head. ‘That means nothing to me,’ he said. ‘You could be telling me anything. I can’t tell the time, my sleep is fucked… ’
‘I know what you’re saying, Welger, but there was always risk on that job.’
‘This is different.’
‘It’s only been a few days. Give it a couple of weeks and see how it goes. There should be some improvement.’
Welger’s spirits slumped further, a weight visibly sliding through him. A real friend would have been sorry that some of his own anxiety and worry had been soothed by his suffering. But I wasn’t and that’s the truth of it.
‘Sound,’ Welger said, heavily. ‘Sound.’ He climbed into the van. ‘I’ll drop those gauges off at the man and I’ll get back to you when he’s had a look at them.’
‘There’s no rush.’
He turned out the gate and sped up the coast road. And if you’d told me then that it would be a couple of months before I’d see him again I would have been relieved.
I gradually improved over the following weeks.
The dissonance between my inner clock and external time slowly meshed as my circadian rhythms fell to their proper hours. And with my sense of time becoming more accurate, my ribs and shoulder began to heal properly; bones knitting together and the bruising on my abdomen clearing also. Day by day I was harmonising with myself, returning to my proper being. Three weeks later I was almost back to myself completely. Yes, there was still a slight lag in my sleep and in my ability to register time, but I was confident now of myself getting stronger and better.
As the days shortened and the winter light closed in around the house, my focus shifted from my own injuries to taking care of my wife.
Ellie is a keener, a professional keener.
One of those women who cry out their praises of the dead, smoothing their passage to heaven and soothing the souls of the bereaved. Keener by trade, keener by spirit, keener by vocation. Martha, our daughter, says sometimes that she is more comfortable singing the praises of the dead than those of the living. Her most recent contract was the difficult one—a male clone in his early twenties whose brutal murder threatened to flare up and incite more violence.
Ellie was standing at the gable with a mug of coffee in her hand. Our plot of land ran from the main road down to the foreshore in the distance. December clouds piled overhead and she stood raw and windblown, perfectly cut out for this time and place.
But she looked tired also. You could see the fatigue in her face, the blue shadows beneath her features. I had seen this before but there was a malignant depth to this that was new.
‘Winter’s here,’ I said. ‘It’s come in early.’
‘I’m glad. I like the winter.’ Ellie pulled her cardigan around her and turned her shoulder to the wind. ‘The time of year for rest and sharpening our tools, getting ready for the spring.’ She raised her hand to my face. ‘You look better.’
‘I’m okay, not so sore now. I got paid also, so that’s good.’
‘Yes, I got paid too. It came through last night.’
‘Two pay cheques will carry us till spring.’
‘I saw the footage; you did a fine job.’
‘Yes, I hope so.’
‘It looked difficult, you must be tired.’
‘I am tired, very tired. It took me an age to get my head around it. You literally don’t know what note to strike, always that dissonance around clones, even when they’re dead. And it leaves you drained.’
‘I hate that you have to go off in the dark like that, and no idea where you’re going.’
‘It was the other side of the county. It took two and a half days, making sure I crossed no major roads. But I thought you were following me? You were supposed to be following me.’
‘I was but the GPS was twitchy—you’d disappear for hours at a time and then pop back into focus, it was hard to keep track.’
Ellie leaned back against the wall with her eyes closed. Weak light lit up the shadows crawling beneath her skin—it would take weeks for her face to clear.
‘I now know why so many keeners avoid doing clones. It’s so gruelling, and some of them never recover their proper pitch afterwards.’ And then she smiled. ‘But I got a nice note from the mother; she was pleased with my work. It says something good about her that she took the time to write to me.’
‘She looked heartbroken in the footage I saw.’
‘Who wouldn’t be? Her only child just setting out in life and then dying like that.’
Later that same evening we set a small fire at the bottom of the garden and burned all the clothes she had used on that last keen—the dress she had walked over a hundred kilometres in, the jacket, her underwear and socks, her old boots. We piled them up, doused them in petrol and then struck a match. The night closed in around us as we watched them burn and as the last flames were dying down Ellie used the spade to turn the charred remnants into the heart of the fire, ensuring there was nothing left but ashes; the last part of the keening ritual now fulfilled. As we raked the ashes into a pile, Martha came from the house, stripping her head-cam as she walked. She came up behind Ellie and put her arms around her, burying her face in the back of her neck. Ellie was neither startled nor moved. She ran her hand through Martha’s hair.
‘There’s only one person in the world with hugs like that.’
And in that moment, standing over the ashes of my wife’s clothes, I thought myself a lucky man. Not because these two women were everything I loved of this world, but because I would have no sorrow in seeing the rest of it go to hell.
We hunkered down for the winter, the three of us. Ellie took the van to the co-op and did a huge shop of everything we would need to carry us through the next ten weeks. Cupboards and shelves were stacked with tins and boxes, the freezer filled up. Luckily, our old house with all its rambling additions and conversions was big enough to give each of us our own space during the day, so that our coming together for an evening meal was something we looked forward to. It was easy to believe we were returning from greater distances than was actually the case, with news and greetings from afar.
Outside, the days shortened down to a couple of hours’ daylight, while the wind kept up a steady pounding on the hipped roof. And for me that was the worst of it. I could cope with the grey light that leached the colour from everything and the driving rain that drew so much of its slashing venom from the sea. But the constant pounding wind, that’s what grated on me, that’s what deepened my anxiety and wore me down.
And there was no sign of Welger. December passed and no word and as the year turned I began to think it might be an idea to give him a call. No sooner had I formed the idea than he turned up on cue in the yard, turning his van through the gate. I watched him from the kitchen window. I expected him to jump out and come to the door with that shouldering gait of his, but he surprised me by doing the very opposite. He leaned forward with his head on the steering wheel for a long moment, a pose so at odds with everything I knew about him that I was immediately on my guard when he eventually did get out and made his way across the yard.
‘Welger,’ I said, ‘the very man.’
‘Can I come in?’
He pushed past me and craned his neck up and down the hall. ‘Is she in herself?’
‘She is, but is it me or her you want?’
Welger looked agitated in a way I had never known him to be.
‘We can talk in there,’ I said, pointing to the utility room beside the kitchen.
He surged head down through the open door. Inside he pulled himself up to his full height and faced me.
‘What the fuck is on those gauges?’ he said suddenly, stepping towards me.
I put my hand out to keep him at a distance. Welger was scared, I saw that clearly now, and it spooked me to have him like this, most especially to have him like this in my own house. ‘You know what’s on those gauges,’ I said. ‘You know all that.’
‘Do I fuck know all that,’ Welger fired back. He prodded a finger. ‘You’re a fucking… ’ His rage surfaced once more, preventing him from finishing the sentence. He stood there, prodding the air.
‘Explain what you’re talking about, Welger, or you’ll have to go. You can’t come into my house roaring and shouting like this. Tell me straight or get out.’
‘The readings,’ he spluttered. ‘Those readings.’
‘As far as I know, Welger, there’s nothing on those gauges except what they read on that last job—you know, you were beside me when we took them. So what are you complaining about now? I don’t understand.’
I had sympathy for Welger. It was clear he was completely overtaken by a mixture of rage and fear. And whatever attempt he’d made in the van to calm himself and meet me with a civil tongue had completely evaporated in the short distance to my door.
He drew a deep breath, hauling air into the depths of his chest. ‘I gave those gauges to this man I know and he took a look at them and said no bother, he’d wipe and reset them. But it would take a while; he had a backlog of work on his bench. Sound, I said, there’s no rush. He got back to me yesterday—or rather he turned up at my gate and fucked them across the grass to me. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Take them away from me,” he said, “and don’t ever bring them near me again. I have never seen readings like these.” I tried to calm him down but that only made him worse. So then he showed me what he was talking about.’ And now Welger looked at me with naked disbelief. ‘I was there when you did that scrape—I have a clear memory of it. And those readings are there, one after another, all properly stacked and sieved, there’s no problem with them. But beneath them there’s a parallel reading, a different screed altogether.’
‘You mean a ghost script.’
‘We know about ghost scripts,’ I said. ‘It’s not unlikely that those gauges would pick up ambient readings, they are seriously sensitive.’
‘Well, they’re there, trailing on the backs of the primary readings. In all his years of reconditioning gauges he has never come across anything like them. Frankly, he nearly shit himself. He checked and double checked but there’s no disputing them.’ Welger ground to a halt, his anger and frustration spent. He raised his hand above his head and laid the palm against the wall.
‘Ambient readings, Welger; they’re a nuisance more than anything, they can be binned.’
‘No they can’t, not these, not what’s on them.’
Welger’s anger had not weakened him. He was now gathered to some purpose beyond rage; it hardened throughout his body and every line in his face.
‘So how bad are those readings?’
‘You know where we were, where we took those readings. They were always going to be bad, and they are. But the ambient readings are worse, way worse.’
I listened to him and I heard his words but they were not what Welger was saying and we both knew it. I waited for him to continue but he was saying no more.
‘Say it out Welger,’ I pushed.
‘I don’t have to say it out.’
A blunt surge of anger pushed through me. ‘I don’t have all fucking day to stand here listening to you mewling and puking, Welger. Say what’s on your mind.’ I was appalled at my own recklessness. If this encounter came to blows, there was only one way it would go. Welger leaned into me with his teeth bared.
‘You don’t need me to tell you what’s on my mind, you know damn well. But you do need to know that you can go to hell, you and your gauges. Don’t come around me or my family again, or you’ll be meeting me at the door with my gun.’ He went to walk away before turning back once more. ‘And if there is anything decent in your black heart you will pack a bag tonight and leave your wife and child and fuck off out of their lives.’
He threw open the door and strode across the yard. I watched as he opened the back of the van and fired the bag of gauges on to the ground. He swung around the yard in a skid of muddy rainwater, and the van disappeared from sight at the top of the road.
‘I thought I saw Welger today,’ Ellie said, later that evening.
‘Yes, that was him all right; a short visit.’
‘What did he want? I’m always uneasy whenever he calls.’
‘Not much, he just left back the set of gauges.’
‘So they’re all sorted.’
‘No, they’re not all sorted; he wasn’t able to do anything with them.’
‘So what are you going to do now?’
‘I don’t know for the moment. I have to think about it.’
Ellie looked pointedly at me. ‘Don’t tell me he left them in the house?’
‘No, they’re out in the shed.’
‘Leave them there, they give me the creeps.’
‘You and me both,’ Martha said, as she sat into the table. ‘They weird me out. I can never rid myself of the idea that they’re watching me, even when they’re in the next room.’
‘You don’t appreciate their artistry,’ I said. ‘That’s what’s wrong with you two.’
‘Those things,’ Ellie shuddered. ‘They’re neither dead nor alive.’
‘Nor animal, vegetable or mineral.’
‘Some unholy hybrid.’
‘Some unholy hybrid, forged in hell.’
I raised my hands. ‘Okay, I get it, they stay outside.’
And they did. After Welger left I had carried them to the shed and put them in the corner. And of course I took a last look at them, lying in the bottom of the bag, and as always I was both fascinated and repulsed. Such extraordinary instruments! Their steady pulse arcing across the organic and synthetic, their reach into depths that became more abstract the deeper they went. Lying there, it was impossible to see them as the point at which metaphysics and a rogue strain of biotech had their communion. My wonder was complete and I closed the bag over them before going back into the kitchen where Ellie was setting the table and lighting candles.
But sometimes now, waking in the middle of the night, I sense them through the walls and across the yard to their corner of the shed. And it frightens me to know that they are there, sharing this world with me and my loves, ticking away and gathering their horrible testimony. And that same fear brings with it the certain knowledge also that I can never be rid of them, and that one day they will surely testify against me, and that will be all.