It’s Dead Busy Down the Night Market
Is it the fragrance of dying lilies or the soft click of a closing door that disturbs me from my dreams? Beside me, there’s flowers from an invisible postman; someone’s abandoned a wreath. They’ve left a chilling memorial card – and worse, it’s addressed to me.
‘Hugh. May your heart and soul find peace. Gone, but not forgotten.’
I open my bedroom door to be greeted by silence. Visitors are infrequent. The last lover to leave told me she was never coming back. A feather beckons from the gloom of the hallway. I follow as it floats to my open front door. The homeless girl, who I always ignore, sits up and winks from her lair of soggy cardboard. There’s no point asking if she saw my intruder. She’d only want money – or worse, to come in.
‘Hey Hugh,’ she calls, in her lazy sing-song voice. ‘Come back. I’ve got something for you.’
She rummages amongst the filth and blankets, and from somewhere deep in her grubby layers, triumphantly, she produces my gift. It’s a card with a picture: the grim reaper riding a white horse.
‘Cheer up, old bean,’ she smiles. ‘It doesn’t always mean that – and by the way, have fun at the night market.’
I throw it and run – away from her, from that smell, from those eyes which sear through me. No time to ask how she knows my name. The houses repeat as my feet pound the pavements. Streetlights are out, and the night’s black as ravens. I finally see light and feel strangely relieved this darkness is over. It’s bizarre – it’s a sign: I’ve arrived. Normally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a market, but I’m curious to join the warmth and bustle – cries from the stallholders, cheers from the crowd. The stench of burned BBQ mingles with shouting, but there’s too many heads to catch a glimpse of the wares.
‘Hey!’ screams the stallholder, incandescent. 'Don't touch.'
Blue flashes crackle backward and forward. My elbows have got me to the front of the queue. Everyone else has jumped back.
‘How many volts you asking for? It’s a minimum of two thousand – two and a half if you want to be certain.’
‘What are you talking about?’
He rolls his eyes.
‘Electricity for the electric chair – someone told me you needed a sit-down.’
I turn away in disgust, pushing through the crowds until I reach the next stall. It’s piled high with earth, as though a gigantic mole has deposited a huge mound. Customers are grabbing it by the fistful – greedy, ravenous, like a zoo feeding frenzy. Despite their muddy camouflage, I recognise some faces: there’s Ali, the ex I dumped because she wouldn’t lose weight; the FUGLY I kicked out, screaming she’d be homeless – then she had the cheek to claim I got her up the duff and wanted child support. There’s Terry, my pathetic ex-business partner who kept going on about paying taxes. I even see my siblings, their grasping hands flailing – still complaining about the will, still moaning about how I changed it to feather my nest.
‘They just can’t wait,’ smiles the stallholder. ‘Everyone wants to throw a handful of dirt on your coffin.’
I push through the melee in search of an exit: past the stall selling mountains for my sky burial; past the one drowning under discounted buckets of choppy waves – a special offer to bury me at sea. I barge past another that’s packed with people fighting over sticks, familiar faces dancing in the flames – all after fodder for my funeral pyre. Eventually, I reach an empty stand. The woman sitting behind the stall looks kind, unflappable – she could almost be attractive if she hadn’t let herself go.
‘Can you help me?’ I gasp, choking on a cloud of cheap perfume.
‘Sorry, Hugh,’ she smirks. ‘You’re out of luck. I did have some bridges – quite a few, in fact. Perfect to reach the exit points, but they all got burned.’
She reaches behind the stall and yanks a cord, plunging the market into darkness, silence. A mean crack of light leaks from a skylight that’s well out of reach. I hear a click, then I’m dazzled. She flashes an industrial flashlight across my face. Shining across the stall in front of her, thousands of particles dance in its beam.
‘Ashes turned to ashes, Hugh. And yep, clever clogs, you can guess the rest – dust. But I do have something for you – you must be dying to get out.’
Pleased with her joke, she reaches into her dungarees, and from somewhere behind the tie-dyed denim, she retrieves another picture. It’s the grim reaper on a white horse: my second death card.
‘The thing is, Hugh. You think you’re God’s gift, but quite frankly, your hubris has led to some terrible detritus, or should I say your H-U-G-H-bris?’
She cackles even louder as she pats the front of her denim bib – one of those smug ‘Baby-on-Board’ pregnant women who always assume they’re entitled to a seat.
My palm touches scalp as I stroke the back of my head: that bald patch on my crown is definitely getting bigger. No longer kind, her steely eyes drill deep into mine - teeth gleaming fang-like, yellow from the darkness.
A thwack. She slaps the tarot card down on her stall, spiting the wood with the force of her arm.
‘It’s a slim chance I'm giving you to change, Hughie-boy,’ she sneers. ‘But if I were you, I’d take it.’
She turns the card over, smacking it down hard again – and each time she hits the table, it’s as if she’s daring the wood to weep too.