The Exaggerated Man’, Terry Grimwood

Artwork by Djibril

Salman Rushdie once wrote that a person becomes exaggerated once they have been in the presence of death.

1

First he was tired. The tiredness was black and filled with a strident thud-thudding that could only be his heart. He knew all about hearts. Hearts had made him rich. There were other sounds; gurgling, roaring, and, from somewhere distant, a rhythmic, incessant bleep.

He sank. He fell. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak or open his heavy, heavy eyes. He panicked, this was a mistake, he wanted to go back, had to go back...The thudding slowed into irregularity. The roaring faded.

The thudding stopped. The bleep became a flat, unbroken tone.

Descent became ascent.

 [ Intensive Care Unit: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] He opened his eyes and saw...The familiar grid of white fibre tiles that roofed his private consulting rooms. But something was wrong. The ceiling was falling...No, no it was okay, it wasn't the ceiling that was moving.

"Christ Carol. We have to bring him back. Now - "


He rolled over in mid air, the movement calm and easy, and found himself looking down at a hospital trolley surrounded by the paraphernalia of intensive medical care. And at himself, Cardiac Consultant Peter Atwood, gaunt, bearded, face ashen, eyes closed, lips slightly apart.

Dead.

He supposed he should be shocked, upset, but he wasn't. He was at peace, accepting.

The trolley was attended by a red-haired, middle-aged woman and, an over-tall, over-thin young man; Drs Carol Mellor and Andy MacFarlane, Atwood's Senior Specialist Registrars. Atwood wanted to reassure them, but he knew they wouldn't hear him if he...what? Spoke? He smiled. The smile was a spreading of warmth and peace through whatever constituted Peter Atwood now.

"For God's sake Andy," Carol, firm, as always. "Three minutes, that's all he asked for."

MacFarlane ran a nervous hand through his hair. "Christ, don't you understand? If we fuck this up we've murdered him - "

"Shut up, okay?" Carol sounded shaken by MacFarlane's warning. "Just shut up and calm down."

Three minutes...so little time. Atwood willed himself away from the scene and found that he could float smoothly across the room, over equipment cabinets, their dust-coated tops piled with old journals and books, towards the wall, through the wall and into the private clinic's bright-lit main corridor.

Faster now, beginning to spiral, but not dizzy, just exhilarated by speed, by the madcap abandon of his flight. The corridor stretched on.

Became a tunnel.

Dear God, he was hurtling headfirst into a tunnel, the tunnel, as described in almost every near-death account Atwood had ever read or heard. Its walls dazzled but didn't blind, were smooth but not solid. The light bathed him, was an energy that thrummed through him, gave him strength.

Ahead, he saw a disc of astounding blueness; rushing at him, expanding, filling the universe, becoming everything. Until he -

Stood by a river.

Grass under his feet, the warmth of a sun on his face, a gentle wind tousling his hair...Hair? He glanced down at himself, he had a body, his own, clad in the green hospital gown he had borrowed for the journey. He looked up. The sky was empty. No sun, no clouds, no vapour trails or birds. Only that astounding blue.

 [ Riverbank: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] The river was about twenty feet wide, the water clear, giving sight of a pebbled bed. The banks were gently sloped and lushly grassed. There were trees, poplars, willows, hissing gently in the wind. He studied the nearest of them and saw that their trunks were slightly translucent, netted with tiny vessels, like veins and arteries.

The trees sighed, the grass whispered. Atwood chuckled. Telling those trees things they shouldn't know? The chuckle died because he sensed that it was exactly what the grass was doing.

He turned his attention to the further riverbank. Its slope was crowned by an ordinary-looking, wooden fence. There was a gate. It was closed.

And there were people.

A man and a woman, watching him from the other side of the fence. Atwood's breath caught in his throat. They were his parents.

He ran into the water, which was warm and shallow. The pebbles were not slippery, but soft under his feet. In less than a minute he was scrambling up the other bank. Halfway to the fence he stumbled to a halt, overwhelmed by the presence of his dead.


"Well, well." His father smiled wryly. "I shouldn't be surprised I suppose. You never could leave a question unanswered."

They both looked...three-dimensional. His father, in a typical dark suit and waistcoat, his mother, in the type of floral summer dress she wore for seaside trips when Atwood was a child. They were just into their middle-age, yet their eyes seemed ancient, windows to immense wisdom and peace.

"I...I had to come," Atwood answered his father, feeling awkward, shy even. Mister Jonathon Atwood, had always commanded respect, both as a father and as a surgeon.

"You shouldn't be here Peter Dear," said his mother. "You really ought to be getting back." Atwood moved closer, and saw tears.

"What's over there? Beyond the fence?" he asked.

"I can't tell you that Peter," said his father. "You'll find out soon enough."

"Is it heaven?"

"Heaven? I don't think so." His father shrugged and was suddenly tamping and lighting his pipe. Blue smoke curled from its bowl, Atwood smelled its familiar, pungent scent. "It's...Well it's what it is."

"It's good," his mother interjected in that "Don't worry, everything will be alright," tone she once used to soothe his child-fears. "Now you really must be getting back, you have work to do."

"Your mother's right," said his father. "It's for the best." God, not one, but two of his most infuriating clichés in one sentence. "And we need to be getting along ourselves. Do the sensible thing eh? Go home." He reached out for his wife's hand, hesitated and looked back. "I am glad you came Peter. You've done well, I'm proud of you son."

Then they were walking away, disappearing over the crest of the hill.

Atwood scrambled for the fence, and felt a tug, a tension, like the stretching of a cord. Ignoring it, he clambered onto the barrier.

Nothing happened, no repulsion, no fork of cosmic lightning, no booming voice, just that warm breeze, the feel of old wood under his hands and bare feet, then the grass of the meadow beyond. He ran, surprised at his energy, calling out to his parents as they crested the hill and disappeared.

Atwood quickened his own pace, ascended the gentle slope in a few long strides. Reached the summit –

And stumbled to a halt, shocked, uncomprehending, weeping and laughing in wonder and fear.

There was...a structure, a building, a machine, a living thing, its geometry incomprehensible. It was vast, its edges fading into infinity, its summit lost in a sky of liquid metal and of iron cloud shot through with writhing snakes of energy.

The structure sighed.


He reached out, the act instinctive. The tug at his back, the compulsion to flee strengthened. He fought it, forcing his arm up, his hand open, grasping at...at something he could not understand yet seemed so utterly familiar.

Wheels rotated, titanic, silent-but-thunderous, mechanisms sang. The sighs grew loud. The tug became an urgent pressure, he resisted, wrenching himself forward.

The cord broke and he lurched into the borders of the structure. Amoeba-like arms moved to embrace him, to engulf and absorb. Something was there, emerging from the insanity of machine and translucent flesh; a figure, a mechanism, a sound, an emotion, vast, and benevolent...oh so benevolent. Atwood, on his knees now, reached out to it. Hands met and there was skin on skin, and peace, and the knowledge that he could stay, that he must stay. Transactions were being made, transformations taking place, linkages formed -

He exploded out of a maelstrom of black and light and blood red, ripped into awareness by a shattering blast of energy that crashed through his body.

The bleeping was back. He saw the ceiling, blurred, faces, indistinct yet sliding into focus. There were voices, muffled gibberish, slowly resolving into a chant, his name. "PeterPeterPeter..."

"Pete?" said Carol Mellor. "Peter, can you hear me?"

He managed an answer, a groan that forced its way up into, and out of, his throat.

"Oh God," Carol muttered, and began to cry.

2

"We've proved nothing," said MacFarlane, who was pacing the room. "Except how stupid we are."

"That's not fair," Carol protested. "It was a risk but - "

"It's okay," Atwood said. He was perched on the edge of the trolley, a blanket round his shoulders, a coffee mug cupped between his hands, and feeling, as far as he could tell, no ill effects either from his journey, or the electric shocks Carol had delivered to his stubbornly unresponsive heart.

"The sense of wellbeing is easy to explain," MacFarlane went on. "Endorphins, released into the brain during times of stress. The floating...okay, you saw a view of the room you've never seen before, but Christ, you know this room like the back of your hand, it wouldn't take much for your sub-conscious to work out what it would look like from up there. Come on Peter, you've steeped yourself in near-death folklore...I'm sorry, you must be tired. We'll talk it through tomorrow."

"No, I want to discuss it now, while it's immediate, while we still feel. You were here, you saw it from this side."

"There are no sides Pete, only life and death, existence and oblivion."

"But I went further than anyone has. I found...the place where the dead exist, where they...they live."

"Go home and look at your bookshelves Pete; Silverberg, Clarke, Tolkien, plenty of raw material for your sub-conscious there, plenty of monoliths and mysterious shining structures and collective intelligences. But yes, you did go too far. Christ, I really thought we'd lost you."

"But supposing it was real," Carol said. Her voice was still tremulous, her face pale. "Was it God Peter? Do you think you saw something Divine?"

"Oh come on," MacFarlane exclaimed. "Peter was dead. His heart, his brain, every vital function in his body had stopped working. Everything. We saw nothing, we felt nothing. We were looking at...at an empty carcase...All that light and wonder was hallucination, a brief flare sent up by the mind to make sense of what was happening. It lasted seconds. For most of those three and a half minutes Peter Atwood simply did not exist." He stood, fists clenched by his sides, shaking his head. "I want it to be true. Believe you me, I want the reassurance, but I can't have it. This is it Peter, there's nothing else."

"It was real." God, so real. And how he wanted it back. This room, this place, was grubby, confining, a-roar with the thunder of air-conditioning, the white-noise soundtrack of late-night traffic. "I've described it badly. I've used terms that are too mundane. I felt. It was more emotional than sensory." Atwood subsided, stared down at his coffee, trying to recapture, to re-live...He chuckled. How do you re-live death?

MacFarlane put a friendly hand on Atwood's shoulder. "We'll talk in the morning. I'm going home, and I suggest you do the same."

"See you Andy, and thanks. I always knew you'd bring me back."

"Yeah." MacFarlane grinned ruefully. "We all make mistakes."

3

The darkness greyed towards dawn, and still Atwood hadn't slept. Several stories below, a milk float whined and stopped. Someone whistled "Please Release Me". Bottles clinked then the milk float whined on its way. And beside him, in this unfamiliar bed, Carol Mellor murmured, stirred then settled again.

There had been a kiss, back in the consulting room...


The quality of the dark changed again, uncovering the detail of Carol's bedroom; floral wallpaper, delicate, tasteful, the dressing table, the wardrobe, the clothes, strewn over the carpet, his own shirt and trousers stirred carelessly into the mix.

A kiss.

Following a glance, and a sudden, electric realisation. All these years Carol had been working in his team, turning down transfers and promotions because...


A joining of lips, a meeting of tongues.

So many flavours; sweet and erotic, stale and disgusting - he tried to ignore those, tried to once more to feel, not think. He wondered why he hadn't noticed such tastes before in the hot-breathed mouths of the unsuitable women he had bedded since his long-ago divorce.

Every touch was fire, knife-edged between delight and pain. When it was over, there was comfort and Carol's sleep and Atwood's insomnia. He lay, wide-eyed, hating the dark because the dark was too full of sound and smell.

The wardrobe again, somewhere to focus his attention. It was expensive, but...tatty; the doors, slightly out of true, the varnish, brush-marked and uneven, the wood defaced by knots, tortured by minute warps.

He sighed. Did it matter? He had never been a perfectionist, except in his work. That was different, that was life.

And death.

Oh yes, death. How many lives had he saved? A thousand? Ten thousand? But how many had died?

Before?

Afterwards?

During - those were the worst. The ones whose lives slipped, literally, through his sterile-gloved fingers, whose hearts stumbled to a halt as he worked. The ones who were alive, then, abruptly, gone, everything stuttering to that untidy halt when bleeps became tones, life became... death. A ceasing-to-be so abrupt, so definite, that to cease must be to leave.

But where the hell had they gone?

Some came back, lost for a few seconds, minutes perhaps, returning to share tantalising glimpses...

Atwood had whittled his list of close friends and most trusted colleagues down to two. He cooked them a meal, he poured wine. He made his proposal.

"Oh my God," said Carol Mellor.

"You're fucking crazy," said Andy MacFarlane.

Atwood rolled over and kissed Carol's shoulder. It tasted sweat-salty, chemically soured by soap, perfume, skin cream. Another murmur, another stir, but she didn't wake. Just as well. Last night's post-mortem activities had been strenuous to say the least. He chuckled, and grinned at the ceiling. There was life in the old dog yet.

Life...

The grin faded.

The ceiling oppressed him. It was artex-coated and inscribed with a series of allegedly regular half circles. He tore his eyes away, disturbed by the brutal mess masquerading as order.

He slid out of the bed and quietly disentangled his clothes. As he dressed, he glimpsed himself, insomnia-haggard, in the dressing table mirror. The surface of the glass was finger-smeared and breath-muddied. Was everything in the world this dirty? He scribbled a note. "Gone for a walk, back soon, Pete". Should that be "Love Pete", should the note be prefixed by "Darling"? He didn't know, friendship had turned to desire with an abruptness that was far more shocking than even his trip to the other side had been.

Outside there was grey-sky and raw, damp cold. Atwood zipped up his Barbour, shoved his hands in his pockets and set off down the street. It was still only seven am and few people were about. The grey deepened, the breeze stiffened. There was rain in the air.

He could see it.

Astonished, he stumbled to a halt. He could see the moisture in the atmosphere; bright, sharp splinters of it, mingled with the dust that scraped and hissed all around him, abrading his skin, scratching his throat.

He turned up his collar, shoved his hands more deeply into his pockets and put his head down, like a man stumbling into a blizzard. His downcast eyes picked out the cracks, flaws and misalignments of the paving at his feet. A car rushed past, loud with the rhythmic pattering of its pistons.

There was a newsagent at the end of the street, a monstrosity of glass and green-painted-wood that offered some form of sanctuary. Atwood hurried the last few yards and pulled open the filth-encrusted, out-of-true, door. An electronic bell squawked a harsh two-tone blast.

Inside was a cramped confusion of filth and sound. The fluorescent lights hummed and crackled loudly. The breathing of the assistant, a teenage girl wearing a blinding green tabard over her roll neck jumper was laboured and chesty. She smoked and there was already damage, he could hear it in the working of her lungs. He could smell it too, even from here by the door, the stale ashtray scent of the nicotine addict, melded with the other odours of print, paper, glue, dust, sweat, menstrual bleeding...his stomach recoiled.

He couldn't go in there.

He had to go in there.

Into the shop, fixing his attention on the newspapers. Dirty they were, grubby with print, finger marks, and fibres from packaging. He snatched up an "Independent". The paper was greasy to the touch, coarse beneath an illusion of smoothness. The print was blotchy, irregular and difficult to read. He took it to the counter, the girl glared at him through her mask of makeup.

As he fumbled coin from his wallet, his ears were pounded by the rattle of her lungs, the relentless thundering of her heart. He gagged at the stench of the place. He felt dizzy, faint, couldn't find the right money, couldn't think. Hands slippery, fingers stiff, he dumped a handful of coins onto the counter and fled.

Into a sensory tornado; sound, smell, dazzling glare, a jagged, desolate wilderness of uneven ground, out of square buildings, of filth and stain and countless living things, in the air, on every surface. Squirming, writhing things, spreading, birthing, dying, lashing against his face, into his eyes, into his nostrils as he shambled back towards Carol's flat

 [ Carol: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Careful to breathe through his nose, the taste of the air making him nauseous, Atwood rang Carol's doorbell, then waited on the landing, leaning on the wall, arms locked, palms splayed against the painted brick, trying to calm himself, to understand what was happening to him. It was as if he was seeing the world for what it was. It was as if he didn't belong here anymore.

The door opened. He looked up to see Carol, still in her dressing gown, and not much else by the look of it. She smiled, made to hug him. Atwood stumbled back, an involuntary movement, his cry was instinctive too.

She was...dirty. Scraps of make-up clung to her face, her pores leaked fluids, her flesh was ingrained with muck of all kinds. She stank of sweat, semen, of other juices and excretions. When she spoke, her voice was a grating rasp. "What's wrong?"

"Something's happening to me...Call Andy..."

She led him into the squalor of her home, sloshing through the dank mud of bacteria that seethed in the pile of the hall carpet, then helped him onto the bed. She made to pull off his shoes, but he yelped in pain as his socks scraped at his skin.

"Leave me, please, please leave me alone. Just call Andy."

He lay on top of the duvet, a titanic Gulliver in a sea of Lilliputian micro-life that swirled towards him, hungry for his flesh, his blood, seeking the warm orifices that gave entrance to his body. They dropped from the ceiling, swarmed the walls. He could feel them, taste them, hear them.

Carol moved into view, showering Atwood with a steady fall of skin flakes. Things crawled in her hair, bubbled from her nostrils and between her lips.

"It's okay, it's alright," she murmured in her rasping, whining voice. She stroked his forehead, her sandpaper palm tearing across his skin. He gasped in pain. She flinched back. "Peter, what's happening to you?"

"Some sort of effect," he managed. The vibration of speech sawed at his throat. "Delayed shock...Don't know. Everything hurts."

He lay back. He closed his eyes. In the pain-filled dark, sounds drove in at him, blood-roar, the working of his lungs, the thundering of his heart, the rage of traffic, the scuttle and rustle of living things.

Open again. Carol was returning, from somewhere, the phone probably. Carol...A bulbous, sac of life fluid and organs, a tent of flesh and muscle propped up by a creaking skeleton of mouldering bone, diseased, dripping and exhaling excretion, engulfed in a cloud of swirling bacteria.

Atwood cowered back as the Carol-thing lurched across to the bed. She was issuing choking gagging sounds, speech. She reached out for him with an ichor-dripping claw. He wrenched himself away, rolling in an agony of scraping and sliding, slamming into the floor. Something blundered round the bed towards him, a mound of living filth, a shambling monstrosity of blood and decaying flesh. It bore down on him, its gagging and choking desperate now. It fell on him, attempted to smother him, its touch was pain. Atwood scrabbled at the bedside cabinet, his fist closed about something heavy, a lamp. He swept it down onto – into - the thing's head. It fell. No, melted, dissolved to the floor at his feet. Merging with the writhing roiling masses filling the carpet. It moved feebly. It mewled. He hit it again. bone cracked, fluids splashed.

Carol....God no...Carol!

He hauled himself to his feet. A furnace of sunlight burned his eyes as he fumbled at the window catch...

4

There was grass under his feet, a river rolling by, warmth on his face. A gentle wind tousled his hair...Hair? He glanced down at himself, he had a body, his own, clad in the shirt jeans and Barbour he had been wearing when he had...He looked up. The sky was empty. No sun, no clouds, no vapour trails or birds. Only that astounding blue.


The trees sighed, the grass whispered. Peter Atwood chuckled. Still telling those trees things they shouldn't know? He turned his attention to the further riverbank.

Someone was there...A woman with long, lush red-gold hair, wearing a dressing gown and little else. Carol...


He took a step towards the water, and saw that she was crying. "You can't," she said. "Pete, you can't cross. You don't belong here. You don't belong anywhere." She turned away, covering a sob with her right hand. "You stayed too long, crossed the line... We... We shouldn't have brought you back... Too many things were broken."

 [ Riverbank blocked: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] "Of course I belong here. I'm dead for Christ's sake," he shouted. "I belong here with you, Carol! With my mother and father, with everybody I've ever lost."

She shook her head, unable to speak, crying freely now, shoulders hunched, hands limp by her sides.

Atwood stumbled towards the river, ran –

The water cried with a voice that was a thousand voices and reared out of the pebbled bed and shimmered before him, a vast, translucent wall, veined, pulsing. Screaming Atwood drove himself into the barrier, penetrating for a moment, engulfed in a womb of damp, thrumming warmth. Then he was hurled backwards -

Into pain.

A white, blazing hell of agony shot through with the flash of blue light and radio crackle. The tarmac was hard under his shattered skeleton, his strewn vitals, faces peered down at him, vile, filth-ridden masks of skin on bone. Something, uniformed, jumped back; "Jesus Christ," it rasped. "The poor bastard's alive! He's bloody well alive!"


ENDS

© 2005, Terry Grimwood

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