Men with Yellow Ties
by Max Harris
Doris kept a world inside her handbag: tissues, keys, a pocket mirror, mouthwash, Polo mints, Maltesers, reading glasses, sun specs, rubber bands, concealer, Sellotape, receipts, a handkerchief, a plastic spoon, a shriveled orange segment, tea bags, lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm, hand cream, aspirin, one black sock, two business cards, three hair grips, toothpicks, pencils, ballpoint pens (one black, one blue), assorted scribbled notes, a wooly hat, a folding red umbrella, rubber bands, loose coins, Elastoplast, her check book, purse (containing paper money, debit card, and driving license), coupons, cough drops, fluff, and fairies.
Yes, you heard me. Fairies. Twelve of them. She called them her apostles.
They were tidy little things. They nested in old tissues or the space between a cough drop and a crumpled coupon, feeding modestly on Polos and Maltesers. If she had a little extra cash, on holy days she treated them to handmade Belgian chocolates. One or two were fond of beer. She’d leave a thimble of best bitter on the sideboard overnight.
I only saw them once, the time she tripped and everything came spilling out across the rug, except for twelve small points of light with wings that shot across the room and hid behind the sofa.
“What was that?” I said.
“Those. They hid behind the sofa.”
“No, they didn’t.”
“Yes, they did.”
She said, “It wasn’t anything. Be quiet”
It was only later, when she got in trouble with the police, she told me they were fairies.
That was her defense. She’d been attacked, she said. This man came up to her, a young chap, in his thirties, quite good-looking, started talking to her in the frozen aisle at Tesco’s. It had been a while since anyone had shown an interest in her, so she tried to act insouciant. Or should that be inscouciante? I didn’t know she even knew the word. In any case, he helped her carry all her groceries to the bus stop, waited with her, climbed aboard, and parked his bum (my turn of phrase, not hers) beside her on the seat. He even paid her bus fare. Well, she didn’t know quite what to do about him, did she? So Harris
they had a natter. Doris told him all about me, even showed him photographs.
I didn’t mention photos, did I? Doris kept those in her handbag, too.
The man was clean enough. He’d shaved. He wore a yellow tie. He said he’d walk her home.
She said, “All right.”
It wasn’t far. You just cut through the park, head north along
Throgmorton Street (we had a boy at school we used to call Frog Morton), take a right turn through the alley, where the council keeps on promising to renovate, and there you are at Doris’s back door. It’s mine now.
Doris asked him if he’d like a cup of tea.
He said, “Well, thank you, dear, that’s very nice of you.” She let him in. She put the kettle on, got out her best rose china tea set, poured some milk into the little jug (she hoped he wouldn’t notice where she’d glued it), and arranged a hand of chocolate fingers on a plate.
That’s when the man turned nasty. Put his arms around her waist. She told him, “Don’t do that.” He tried to kiss her.
“No,” she said.
He grabbed her, tried to force the issue. So she hit him with her handbag. Didn’t hurt him. Must have woken up the fairies, though. I reckon he’d been planning robbery or rumpy-pumpy ever since he saw her in the aisle at Tesco’s. If he couldn’t have a bit of luck, he’d settle for a portion of her worldly goods.
He snatched her handbag, took off running, slammed the kitchen door behind him. He was halfway down the alley, when the fairies came out, sharp as razor blades.
It wasn’t pretty. When the ambulance arrived, the man was bleeding from a thousand tiny cuts. His face looked like he’d tried to shave inside a hurricane of broken glass. His hands were torn to pieces where he’d tried to slap the fairies, thinking them some mutant species of mosquito. He was dead. The fairies, it turned out, were poisonous.
By then, poor Doris had her handbag back. She’d zipped it up again.
A police car joined the fracas, blue lights flashing, tires and sirens screeching like a pig being castrated. (I heard that once. My balls curled up like sea anemones).
A policeman stepped out, hitched his trousers up, looked round, and, seeing Doris, asked her what had happened.
Doris said, “He tried to steal my handbag.”
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“So you stopped him?”
“No, it wasn’t me. I never touched him.”
“Oh. Who was it, then?” “Not me.”
They went inside. The kettle in her kitchen was still whistling. Doris turned the gas off, put away the tea bags and the chocolate fingers, locked the house, and let the policeman drive her to the station.
Sometime in the middle of the night, embarrassed, Doris told the police about the fairies. After that, they let her sleep. A young psychiatrist was called. She had blue eyes, pink lipstick, and a beauty spot. She asked, “Do you hear voices?” Doris answered, “No. They speak in sign language.”
The woman frowned. “They can’t be very big, these fairies.”
“No, they’re tiny.”
“How small? More or less.”
An empty cup of tea sat on the table. The remains of a digestive biscuit lay beside it. Doris pointed to a crumb. “About that big,” she said.
“I see. It must be hard to read their signs.”
“I use a magnifying glass.”
The judge confined her to a psychiatric hospital. He ordered her detained there at Her Majesty’s sweet pleasure. Doris said, “I hope the queen enjoys herself.” I visited her—Doris, not the queen—a time or two the first weeks she was in there. She seemed completely lost without her handbag. When I asked her how they treated her, she said, “All right.” I pressed.
She said, “I don’t belong here. They’re a bunch of criminals, this lot.”
I sympathized. “The food’s all right, then?”
“Too much gravy. Turns the mashed potatoes into soup.” The second time I went, she wouldn’t say a thing. I held her hand.
She stared at me, her blue eyes dim.
A male nurse came to take her temperature. He wore a yellow tie. Perhaps he was a doctor. I don’t know. His name, I noticed from his tag, was something Sutcliffe.
Doris screamed, “Don’t touch me.”
So he let me take her temperature instead. I wiped her tears. Her temperature was normal.
When he’d left, she said, “He’s bad, that one.”
“He tries to make me do bad things.”
Three days later, splashed across the front page of the Sunday paper, was the news of Sutcliffe’s death. His wife had found him in the garden, face down in the cabbages. His shirt was draped across the handle of a fork; the weather had been warm that afternoon. His back was cut to shreds, as if he’d been attacked by garden gnomes who’d tripped him, then lit into him with little scalpels. It was poison in his bloodstream killed him, though. Some university professor said no insect known to British entomologists—I’m quoting here—“could cause that kind of savage davage (sic).” It must have been a typo: “damage” makes more sense. In any case, the police suspected murder.
It was in the news for several days. They couldn’t pin it on the victim’s wife, the way they always try to do on telly. She’d been volunteering at the parish church that afternoon, arranging flowers not cabbages. The vicar vouched for her. It didn’t stop the newspapers indulging in a lot of silly innuendo, though.
They couldn’t lay the blame on Doris either. She’d been safely under lock and key inside the local psychiatric institution when the deed was done.
She smiled, though, when I told her. “Serve him right,” she said.
She didn’t stay in hospital much longer. Friday night a fortnight later, Doris woke to tiny lights. She rubbed her eyes, got out of bed, and padded after them. No patient stirred. No nurse rose from her chair.
The population of the hospital slept soundly.
Locks gave way to subtle glitter. Fairies danced on keypads to undo the newer locks. They flew in single file through keyholes to unfasten older ones. They led their patron saint, enchanted, in a fluttering parade along the corridors. Their light reflected in the banisters of winding staircases. The final fairy locked each door behind him. Outside, in the moonlight, Doris said, “It’s like that Peter chappie in the Bible.”
In the morning, hospital officials scratched their heads. Police joined them in confusion. They could find no sign of Doris anywhere. The guards swore up and down they’d been awake all night and hadn’t seen a thing. The CCTV footage blinked at five past twelve; but otherwise it showed an uneventful night.
So Doris disappeared. Officially, she’s what they call a cold case now.
I’ll tell you, though, she’s doing okay is Doris. Had her hair done. Bought herself a brand new handbag. Soft black leather. Very nice. Her twelve apostles still get by on Polos and Maltesers. One or two of them drink rather too much beer, perhaps, but who am I to judge? I’ll tell you something else. When Doris left the hospital, she didn’t go back home. She isn’t daft. It’s me that lives there now. I visit Doris