THE SEVEN AGES OF MANN
‘IT’S A MANN-child,’ Mann’s father said with a sour grin, reaching for his hat.
As the door closed, Mann’s mother rose from her chair and turned on the gramophone, winding it gently so as not to disturb the child. A disc gripped its spindle, the needle bit down and slow, draggy piano crackled out of the horn.
‘I love you, little one,’ she said, stroking his small soft cheek, whispering.
At a loose end, Mann found it poking round the janitor’s room. An elderly brown fedora, peppered with sawdust from the floorboard cracks, thrown aside near a bottle of poison with a busted stopper hanging crookedly to one side. He polished the tank of the boiler, blew off the hat’s dust and blinked away sudden baby tears, slouching the thing low down and dangerous over his eyes. You dirty rat.
It was dark in the doorway, cold too, and he was sick to the back teeth of this shadowing job. McNulty wasn’t coming to relieve him, that was clear; the agency had forgotten he was even here. Mann cradled a cigarette brim-down against the frigid breeze. Suddenly a flare of skirt – heels, long white gloved hands – then just as fast gone into darkness.
Ah well, another evening with five-fingered Mary.
The first blow knocked him down, the second set his vision spinning. He didn’t feel the third or fourth blow, or anything much beyond that.
Later, the pressure of McNulty’s fingers on his arm brought him to. ‘Come on, soldier,’ McNulty said gently, ‘come on. Let me buy you a drink.’
‘No. No.’ Mann flinched away, pulled his hat straight and snapped his sleeves. ‘This is all I’m good at.’
They had promoted him because of the killing, Mann knew – the sudden, clean removal of their bête noire, a persistent thorn in the side of the agency’s biggest client, and in circumstances the law couldn’t touch.
Stepping into the anteroom he laid his palms on the smooth leather running down the table top, pushed once or twice at a dense mahogany hat-stand, still smelling blood and cordite on his knuckles.
Mann fingered the knot of his tie in the washroom mirror. Time had scored in a permanent squint, radiating lines and the cast of knife-thin, downturned lips to his face. The executives from another big client – an insurer, he seemed to recall – were milling around with cocktails in their hands, dainty canapés balanced on napkins, waiting for his speech. A sudden laugh from outside and he wanted to hit somebody.
The hired nurse turned him over between the rails of the hospital bed, noting the scars on his side, the back of his hands.
‘Would you like to hear the wireless, Mr Mann?’ She walked over to the set through bars of winter sunlight. The dial crackled into life, floating through big-band and rock to light jazz on the piano.
On his face, she saw the faint signal of love.
First published in HeavyGlow Flash Fiction: Two Years Burning Brightly (2007)
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