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Away from the Dead
Sample PassageIt wasn’t my first solo job, but it was the years after the Depression and even companies like the one I worked for were struggling. There was talk of halving the workforce and doubling the hours, so when the Durandeau file came to me alone, I made a point of seeing to it as soon as possible and telling the boss I could handle it. After all, I had a wife at home, a baby soon to be born.
It was busy work in those days with all the businesses going bust and the abandoned buildings numbering more than the occupied. Someone – our boss’s boss – bought these, at less than a dollar some days, and it was our job to go inspect them. To remove any valuables – once a butcher’s freezer full of newly hanging carcasses, another time a trader in furs who’d left his entire stock behind – and to make sure that none of the recently homeless had made a place for themselves in the vacant properties. A job easy enough to do on paper, but less so when you walked through the doors and saw forgotten personal possessions or had to throw out a family of squatters whose faces, beyond the grime, looked too much like your own. But it was a job and that was enough to mean it was worth keeping.
My boss’s boss had sent through the Durandeau case as a matter of urgency. The plot was large and he needed the building demolished and a new tenement block erected by the end of the year, before the economy had a chance to stabilise. Cheap places were in high demand and he wanted to squeeze what he could out of the Depression. It was March already and I saw little hope of the tenement being completed in time, but I would do my part and leave it at that.
I drove to the Durandeau place on the same morning that the file came to me. The streets were full of the unemployed. Men with placards begging, women with children in bread queues and, all along that part of the city, townhouses, apartment blocks and stores falling into disrepair. Montgomery Street was no different with its bare windows, cracked walls with peeling paint and weed-heavy yards, so much so that I missed the place at first and had to drive to the end of the road and circle back. As I was parking in front of Durandeau Enterprises, an old man came out of the neighbouring derelict building. He had on a dressing gown and a pipe, empty, in his mouth. He saw me approach the gate and shuffled forward saying, ‘I wouldn’t go in there. It’s haunted.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Haunted. Full of strange sounds. Like voices but not like voices if you know what I mean.’
‘It’s Durandeau, I guess. That’s what we all think,’ he said, gesturing to take in the immediate neighbourhood. ‘Unhappy in life, unhappy in death.’
‘Yes, I see,’ I said again, beginning to make my way up the path.
He followed, the pipe clenched between his teeth, and continued to tell me of the man who had been his neighbour for some fifty years. ‘Came from Paris in 1882. His granddaddy had a business there, renting out ugly people. So, if you’re only so-so, you hire someone ugly and beside them – BAM! – you’re a looker. Just like that. So Durandeau, the grandson now, he says, it’s such a hit in Paris, I will bring it to the good ol’ US of A. But I don’t know, maybe it’s the American attitude or ’cause we’re so damned fine looking,’ he snorted, ‘but it failed. Kinda chugged along for a few years, and then began to fail. Durandeau sold his house, divorced his wife, moved into the building here and spent all the time working, working to try and make the business succeed, even after his last client left fifteen years after the business began. Lived here like that until his death maybe five, six months ago.’
We had by now reached the offices, the front door standing ajar, its handle missing. All the windows on the ground floor were broken and the glass crunched beneath our feet.
‘I’m afraid I can’t invite you in,’ I said.
‘Well, on you go then. Don’t let me keep you,’ the man said, turning back towards the road. ‘I’m not interested in going there anyway. Anything worthwhile’s been taken already.’
The door was swollen in place with damp, so I had to squeeze through the opening the looters had left me. In the passageway several pigeons fluttered at my entrance, before settling on the light fittings. The carpet was littered with their droppings and feathers, the wallpaper was peeling and the portraits were crooked or on the floor. Other than that, it was a normal enough building. Four large offices downstairs, six smaller ones upstairs. One of these appeared to have been a storeroom for clothing. They hung there, suits and dresses of every colour and fashion. Against a wall were long mirrors, so blemished that my body and face came back at me distorted. On a row of shelves wigs sat on wooden heads, their curls unravelled and shadowy with dust. A safe had been ripped from the wall and lay open on the floor. No doubt it had contained jewellery at one time, but now it was empty.
In a bottom office a filing cabinet had been overturned, scattering paper and photographs across the carpet. The photographs showed mostly country girls: rough, sunburnt, with coarse hair and narrow eyes. Annie from Johnsontown. Sarah from Greeneville. Peasant women uncomfortable in fine clothes, who carried that discomfort with them in their general demeanour. I found, too, amongst it all, part of a list dated 1905: Miss M. Willard had hired Clara three nights running before switching to Fanny for five. Mr Edward Landy had hired Samuel to be seen with him at the Opera on three separate occasions. Mrs O. Faber had paid for Lucy’s company for one night in every week for a period of two months. In another room I found what must have been Durandeau’s bedroom. It was sparsely furnished with a slim cot, a flat pillow, a blanket, and on the floor beside the cot, a pile of notebooks, the writing all in French, of which I knew none.
Those were the rooms and they contained nothing of interest or value. According to the site plans, I had only one more to go – a basement that was to be entered from the outside. I went through the front door again, round the side of the building and into a narrow alleyway where four steps led down to a door. It was banded by three separate crossbars, each with a lock of its own. I returned to the car for my bolt-cutters and struggled to cut open the thick metal. When, at last, I was able to drag the heavy door open, it was the stench that made me think something was awry. I had never smelled anything like it and was forced to bring my jacket to my nose in order to be able to move forward. I walked several metres into the dark, scanning my flashlight across the area. It took some time before I understood what it was that I was seeing. But once I did, I retreated hastily, shutting the door, pulling the cross bars to, and all the time gagging at the stink that had glued itself to my nose and mouth.
Of course I refused to go back there again, though the authorities went many times and carried me back there, too, with their endless questioning.
‘What did you see exactly?’
‘Tell us again, what was it that you saw down there?’
‘What do you know about this? What did you find during your search?’
But my answer could not change. ‘I keep telling you. I know nothing. All I know is what I saw and I don’t even know what it was. Things like people, but not like people.’
The interviews lasted several days and nights. I was detained in a room all the while, brought food and given a cot – like Durandeau’s – to sleep on between sessions, until at last, it was the Thursday, I think, they said I could go if I agreed to sign some documents about what I had seen.
‘Please,’ I said to my inquisitor, a middle-aged man with a wiry moustache and various badges on his lapels, ‘how can I sign about what I’ve seen when I don’t even know… What did I see? What were they?’
‘Son,’ the man replied, ‘this Durandeau was – I don’t know what you’d call it – breeding, I guess, hideous people. Deformed. That’s what we’ve been able to determine from the notebooks he kept and the basement where you found them.’
As he spoke, I began to understand what I had seen, what Durandeau had occupied himself with all those years alone. And I began to imagine it – the confinement of an unattractive couple or couples. Their copulation controlled and limited until they bred with their own offspring, until they became father, brother, grandfather, nephew all at once. In this way brains were weakened, reason grew increasingly distant, and deformities of the body were common. Hanging lips in front of toothless gums, infants born without ears or eyeballs, without feet or forearms. Kept in the dark, their diet inadequate, their bones either fused or brittled, their backs curved, goitres growing at their throats. No longer were they able to walk, moving by crab-like motion across the basement floor.
The man with the badges and moustache told me that rainwater had been piped in from outside so that Durandeau’s pets always had enough. But after his death there had been no one to continue his daily feeding and cleaning. It was believed, based on bones found in the basement, that they had resorted to eating one another.
‘They are not human. That’s all you need to know,’ the man told me as I left the interrogation room.
No word of Durandeau’s scheme was breathed to the public, and the documents I signed swore me to secrecy on the matter. I kept my word and have never mentioned what I saw, until now. A fortnight after my visit to the place, a local newspaper reported a spate of gunshots late one night coming from the Durandeau place and police vans parked nearby into which witnesses claimed to have seen numerous covered bodies hauled. Cops, when interviewed, were vague, speaking of bootleggers in general and the constant fight against the criminal classes.
I did not go by there again. Not till more than a year later when I had to inspect a nearby building. By then the Durandeau place was gone and the tenement building had been erected. From its windows stared out the poor inhabitants, victims of the Depression, their faces grown unsightly with need.
© Karen Jennings - Development has been published in Karen's latest short story collection Away from the Dead. You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.
Number of pages: 107
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What was said about Away from the Dead‘Jennings' searing collection, which so poetically depicts life at all levels of South African Society.’
‘Stories such as Jennings' offer a powerful tribute to the complexity of lives inhabiting this remarkable globe.’ - Alice Robinson in Arena Magazine, Australia
‘Within a few sentences Jennings sets the scene and her characterisation is deft and feels authentic. Jennings is seriously talented and I would definitely read her next book.’ - Novel Escapes
‘Karen Jennings’ short stories are like searchlight beams’ & ‘Jennings has the good storyteller’s intuitive knack of saying a great deal in a very few words’ & ‘a collection of beautifully crafted and poignant stories that can stand side by side with the very best.’ - David Gardiner on facebook
‘In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished.’ - Emma Lee's Blog
‘The characters are vivid and easily recognizable. The reader connects immediately and is engaged throughout.’ - Henry Tobias on Amazon
‘Jennings’ writing is evocative, bringing everyday existence in Africa alive with her sharp descriptions and intriguing characters.
‘The sadness that Africa, and South Africa especially, is still such an unequal society haunts every page but the lack of self-pity is admirable. This is a fine short story collection that shows a maturity belying the author’s relatively tender years.’ - Shirley Whiteside on Book Oxygen
‘Karen is poignant. She seizes on the individual, and casts them alone, bringing to bear, the 'long road' that is life.’ - The Star, Kenya
‘Throughout Away from the Dead Jennings sensitively lifts the veil shrouding the concept of death.’ - Book Bites on Books Live
‘This collection of short stories stands out not only because of Jennings’s rich and poignant writing, but also for how she portrayed the chilling realities of those left behind as death lingers and finds its place within us.’ - Kholofelo Maenetsha on Books Live