The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Fiction from Mexico City

New Fiction by Andrew McCallum Crawford

Campbell's Visitor 

 

By Andrew McCallum Crawford (Scotland)

Published in issue 27.

I thought it best to phone. A woman answered. She paused, which was laudable, when I mentioned his name. He was only entitled to nine hours a year. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. She started to ask questions. I could tell she was writing everything down.

‘Would tomorrow be all right?’ I said.

 

The line crackled.

 

‘That won’t be a problem,’ she said.

  

The morning was dark, the weather cloudy. By the time I got to the mountains, it had developed into a storm. I could hardly see the road, the rain was bouncing off the windscreen. I eventually found the place. There were signs, of course, but only when you were nearly there, the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a massive fence capped with coils of barbed wire. I halted in the Designated Area and shouted my business through an intercom fixed to a post.

 

The gate opened via remote control.

 

I parked near a small group of cars in front of the building, but not too close. A guard was standing at the entrance, watching. He turned and let the door swing back. I stopped it with the flat of my hand and stepped over the threshold, the wind roaring behind me.

 

Inside. There was no sound of the storm. The corridor smelled of bleach and something aromatic, as if an empty swimming pool had been buffed with furniture wax. The linoleum gleamed. So did the walls, which were meticulous khaki gloss. I wanted to lay my fingers against the paint, to touch it, but was worried that such behaviour would be considered suspect.

 

I realised I was on my own.

 

My heels echoed. The guard was in an office at the other end of the corridor. He was reclining in a swivel chair, his hands clasped behind his head, his eyes trained on a television showing vistas of the car park. He stretched forwards and moved a lever. I watched my car grow large in the top left corner of the screen.

 

‘So you’re Campbell’s visitor?’ he said. ‘We don’t get many of them.’

 

‘No,’ I said.

 

He leaned on the armrest. ‘What?’ he said. ‘You’re not Campbell’s visitor?’

 

‘No, I am,’ I said. ‘I mean…’

 

He pushed his feet off the floor and glided across the room. He came to a halt next to a small table. The telephone sitting on it was antique. He lifted the handset and tapped the cradle.

 

I heard the faint tinkle of bells in the corridor.

 

‘Munro,’ he said. ‘Come here and see this.’ He stood up. ‘Munro will look after you.’

 

Footsteps. Heavy. Tick – Tock. Rhythmic. Munro was in no hurry. I imagined his footwear. Highly polished army boots.

 

I wasn’t wrong.

 

‘Munro,’ said the guard. ‘This is Campbell’s visitor.’

 

Munro stared. He was a big man with a crew cut; he didn’t like the look of me. I was right about the boots, but I would never have predicted the blue boiler suit. He had a thick leather belt round his waist. A set of keys and a truncheon were hanging from it.

 

‘Clothes maketh the man,’ I said.

 

‘I thought that was manners,’ said the guard.

 

‘Has he signed the book?’ said Munro.

 

‘Good point,’ said the guard. He opened a drawer and raked around. He pulled out a ledger. He opened it flat on the table and moved back.

 

‘Have you got a pen?’ I said.

 

‘Right enough,’ he said. His hand disappeared into the drawer. ‘There should be…Here you are.’

 

The page was blank. There was nothing written on it, nothing at all, not even the date. I made my mark in a place I assumed was appropriate.

 

Munro was away. Tick – Tock.

 

‘Aye,’ said the guard. He glanced at the ledger. ‘You’d better go.’

 

Underground. Our steps rang off the rungs of a spiral staircase. We were deep, and going deeper. Below me, all I could see was the back of Munro’s head.

 

The semi-darkness was getting warm.

 

He stopped. He made a movement with an arm and I heard his keys, then the rattle and crunch of a lock.

 

‘Still a way to go yet,’ he said, as he secured the door behind us.

 

More stairs.

 

‘Another spiral,’ I said.

 

‘It’s a helix,’ said Munro. ‘It goes straight down.’

 

The heat was becoming oppressive. I loosened my tie and undid the top button of my shirt. The sound of dripping, and a cloying smell, like an approaching sewer.

 

‘We’re here,’ he said. Another door. Wood and metal, the rounded ends of bolts forming a pattern in the surface. ‘Now listen to what I’m going to tell you.’

 

Sweat trickled into the small of my back.

 

‘You’ve got as long as you want,’ he said. ‘Fuck the regulations.’

 

‘They told me an hour,’ I said.

 

‘Are you deaf?’ he said. ‘I’m trying to be nice. You’ve got as long as you want. Or as long as you can take.’

 

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

 

He opened the door. ‘When you’re finished, there’s a buzzer on the wall.’

 

I stepped inside. The door was pulled shut. I heard the key in the lock then Munro’s boots as he climbed the stairwell. This tiny space. There was nowhere to sit. The only light came from a bulb shimmering in a wire cage. A grille formed the top half of the opposite wall. I saw movement on the other side of the mesh.

 

The grille rose suddenly, hitting the ceiling. Iron bars separated the room I was in from the cell beyond. The man I had come to see, the man they called Campbell, was shuffling across the floor, his fists bunched at his chest. He stopped in the corner, next to a bed covered in a rankled sheet. I could see the place where the door had been bricked up. He sniffed the air warily then approached the bars, hunched, shuffling, and squatted on a plastic stool that was obviously meant for a child.

 

‘John,’ I said. ‘It’s me. Alan.’

 

His eyes were downcast, his fists still at his chest. He was wearing handcuffs.

 

‘I just got back to Scotland,’ I said. ‘I heard you were in here. I know you’ve been here for a while, but…I just got back.’ What was there to say? I hadn’t seen him for fifteen years. You lose touch with people. That is the way of things. But you don’t forget them. You don’t forget your friends. Friends stand by each other in times of need. John had stood by me many times, all those years ago. I remembered our parting embrace. Neither of us could have imagined the future. Things had worked out for me, but John was being kept in a dungeon. Knowing right from wrong requires an adult perspective. John was an adult. He must have known that what he did was wrong, so wrong.

 

He raised his fists and began to chew his nails. They were raw. He looked at me. His face was pinched, bruised. There was no preamble. He started to say things. He started to tell me the things he had done.

 

I tried to cut him off. ‘John,’ I said. ‘There’s no need to do this. You don’t need to tell me. This isn’t why I came.’

 

Details. Just details, he wasn’t bragging, his eyes were fixed on mine. The light flickered. Something was dripping. The stench of something rotten. His voice started to grate, to sound like a justification, an excuse. God knows how many times he had gone over this.

 

He tried to smile.

 

He was my oldest friend.

 

My hand moved towards the bars.

 

The smile vanished and he stated a fact with such banal detachment that I took it for a non sequitur. But it wasn’t. It was germane, the crux of his presence here.

 

‘Stop,’ I managed to say. ‘Stop, I don’t want…’

 

But he didn’t stop. He said it again, that single sentence, that fact, again and again, grinning the words through broken teeth. Then his fists were at his groin, rubbing, he was still looking at me, those eyes, that smile, which was by no means the smile of a friend, it was the smile of someone unknown to me, someone who didn’t need me, he was a man who wanted I don’t know what but he didn’t want visitors he didn’t want his past turning up he didn’t want to be reminded...

 

He lunged at the bars and spat at me.

 

I stumbled back, wiping my face on my sleeve, and slapped the buzzer. ‘Munro!’ I shouted. ‘Munro!’ I rapped the door, but all I could hear was this stranger’s voice, the sentence repeating over and over and over. ‘Don’t do this, John,’ I groaned, my ear pressed to the studs. ‘Don’t make me hate you.’ I clawed at the wood. The light flickered. ‘Munro, let me out!’ I pleaded, but there was no clang of boots on the stairs, let alone the jangle of keys. I gasped for air as Campbell howled his shame, the shame of the world into the heat of this stinking pit, his domain.

 --

Andrew McCallum Crawford’s short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including InterlitqGutterNorthwords Now and Body. His latest collection, ‘A Man’s Hands’, has just been released. He lives in Greece.