Here’s the second short story of the series. Short and not particularly sweet…
A BLOOD DECOY
It was humiliating living in another man’s bath-house. The owner probably hadn’t intended it to be so – he would not have given enough thought to the matter to even notice it – but that was the way it was.
The arrangement wasn’t permanent. Madis was allowed to live there while he carried out the renovation of the bath-house itself and a few of the other, small outbuildings at the residential complex where the owner lived. After that he would be back in his shack which though nearly as small, colder and less comfortable than the bath house at least didn’t make him feel like such a serf.
Madis started the work in mid-May. It involved laying new lawns, putting on a fresh roof and repointing the chimney, plus similar treatment for the woodshed and garage. The job could have been done in a month but Madis figured he could string it out to two or three months without too much trouble, while still giving the impression that he was always busy.
But creating this extra time to sit on the steps into the bath-house chewing on sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks, or smoking a cigarette, just gave him more opportunity to dwell on his humiliation and each time he thought about it, he grew a little more disgusted. A lust for revenge grew within him. His arms and neck throbbed faintly from mosquito bites.
The steps were still curing after being laid the previous week, but he was no longer prepared to squat on the grass or lean against a tree. How could a man have nowhere to sit in the open air? A wrought iron table and four chairs sat fifty metres away in the middle of the growing lawn but he was not allowed to use them – even though no-one else did either. They were chairs as useless as pieces of sculpture.
They proved the owner of the property could afford real wrought-iron chairs instead of the plastic things most people made do with, which looked bad enough when you bought them and then faded in sunlight and rain to look old and ugly before the frosts weakened and warped the legs when you forgot to bring them inside in autumn or more likely didn’t think such ugly items deserved to be given space inside. They would fend for themselves outside for a few years and eventually crack or give way when some fat relative paid an unexpected visit.
The refuse collectors would spurn them and in the end you would have to dump them somewhere. Then you would buy some more at the end of summer when they were going cheap because that’s all you could afford and a man must have somewhere he can sit outside.
Madis took another handful of roasted sunflower seeds in much the same way the original owner of the property, a minor Baltic German nobleman of the nineteenth century, would have taken a pinch of the snuff he had specially imported from Munich four times a year. The nutty flavour of the seeds filled his mouth, then he began spitting out the husks in a little cloud of straw.
Some of the pieces of husk fell to the ground beside the body of a dead honey bee next to the bottom step. It was half squashed. Madis must have trodden on it without noticing. It reminded him of the insects of the night before, ravenous agents of his deep humiliation.
The cook had approached him the previous afternoon. She was the only person on the domestic staff who was prepared to talk to him. His foreman, the man actually contracted to do the renovation work would drop in every couple of days to check on progress, give him a packet of cigarettes and tell him to keep working. Apart from that he had no human contact.
She had summoned him across to the main building from the window, waving her arm irritably. He wandered over to see what she wanted, making the short journey last longer than strictly necessary as it clearly annoyed her that he wasn’t running at double speed.
He lit a cigarette while she made the offer. He didn’t listen too carefully except when she mentioned money. She offered 15 lats. On principle he said 25 lats. She complained and offered 20 but as he dropped the cigarette butt to the floor and turned to leave she agreed to 25, as he knew she would. It wasn’t her money anyway. She would probably tell her boss they had agreed 40 and the difference would be quietly tucked into the pocket of her apron.
In theory it was money for nothing. All he had to do was sit in the shadows, perhaps 10 metres from where the dinner party was taking place al fresco. The owner was there sitting at the head of the wrought iron table, speaking a mixture of Latvian, Russian and various foreign languages to his guests. The women looked beautiful in elegant dresses. The men mainly looked silly, middle-aged businessmen dressed like college students twenty years their junior. The food was served in small portions but smelled good.
The one rule was that he was not allowed to move, let alone speak. He had thought that after a long day on the roof he would quickly fall asleep, making it the easiest money he had ever earned. But it didn’t turn out like that with the smell of the food, the uncomfortable plastic seat and above all, the braying voice of the owner all keeping him awake.
Once or twice he caught the guests looking at him. The women seemed unsure what a large man was doing sitting close to them, completely immobile and ignored by everyone else, even the waiting staff. The owner was pleased to explain.
He had been in Africa on a business trip when he had been told about blood decoys. They were young boys or old men given a few coins to sit near a chief or other important person. Their role was to draw mosquitoes by offering a ready meal and no resistance. The owner had been struck by the sight of an old man covered from head to toe in buzzing insects, his eyes, trance-like, staring passively ahead while all the business was conducted in comfort around him.
Most remarkable of all, the owner said, was that the blood decoys actually seemed to work. Having been plagued by flies all through his trip thanks to his pale European skin, on this occasion the flies paid him barely any attention. So naturally when he decided to hold this little dinner party in the open air he had decided it would be amusing to see if a blood decoy would work as well on a white Baltic night as it had in the dark continent.
The experiment was only partially successful. Madis was bitten sure enough, but so were the others. Before the dessert was served they had all disappeared inside, forgetting his existence. But Madis stayed there, motionless, under the eye of the cook. Only when the table had been completely cleared, the candles lining the pathways extinguished and the vases of flowers smuggled away to the cook’s own lodgings did she dismiss him, making no effort to conceal her contempt.
As he expelled another little eruption of sunflower husks he felt a sharp pain between his two lower front teeth, like a pin stuck into the gums. He moved his tongue to the spot which only caused the pain to intensify, involuntarily making his eyes water. He swore but his half-filled mouth turned the word into a stupid grunt.
Reaching his thick fingers into his mouth he pulled out a few gobbets of half-chewed seed and husk, throwing them angrily away onto the grass. He fiddled around his front teeth, his fingers clumsily attempting a task far too delicate for them and causing fresh pricks of pain to be injected into his gum, travelling along his jawline and up his neck right to the base of his skull. At last he pulled out a long, thin shard of sunflower seed husk, looking like the curved needle a trawlerman would use to fix his nets. Pink blood glistened on its tip and on his fingers. He could smell the iron taste of blood in his mouth and on his tongue, too.
Madis spat blood onto the ground and rose to his feet, fists clenched. He marched towards the main house, his dirty boots thudding on the lawn. As he passed the wrought iron table he kicked one of the chairs which waltzed onto one leg then toppled sideways onto the grass. He disappeared around the corner of the main building. The mosquitoes were starting to emerge.