‘Market Share’ A short story by Clare Dudman

‘It’s okay, I’ve got my phone.’ Suze, apparently. Rhymes with booze. Early thirties, bit on the small side, purple hair fading to blue. Far too enthusiastic for my liking. Like someone’s wound her up and let her go. Bloody irritating, frankly. Her phone, a make I don’t recognise, is hardly up to task – its torch a weak beam picking out the pointy arches in the wall at the back. The ‘oldest Medieval wall in Chester,’ according to English Heritage. But frankly, who cares? All I’m interested in is getting someone to take the place off my hands, although I doubt little Suze here is going to rise to that particular challenge. She’s keen though, have to give her that.

Patch of cheap lino? ‘Authentic mid-century,’ apparently.

Blocked-off steps? ‘Asking for a good pot display’.

High-flush toilet cubicle complete with studded door? ‘Plumbing! Fantastic!’

God, some people are so wearing, aren’t they? After five minutes I’m completely done in, but Suze hasn’t finished.

‘Oooh what’s down there?’ she says, poking around the edge of a disgusting old carpet. ‘Mind your step!’ I tell her. Health and Safety, you know. Ha, that’s me off the hook.

‘A trap door! Oh wow. You mean you didn’t know?’

Well, no, actually, I didn’t. I mean, it’s not like I’ve had any inclination to inspect the place. Dingy old dump. Smelly too. Eau de dry-rot top note with a base of toadstool. ‘The store’ old Nelson called it, although he never bothered with it much.

‘Damp, I expect,’ my sister Samantha said, when we first went to look at the place. Then she turned to me with a little smug smile – as befits the happy beneficiary of the actual shop part of our uncle’s will, ‘Well, at least he remembered you!’ she said. ‘Which is more than you deserve, frankly.’

I let that go. After all, I’ve never had any doubt about how the old man got to hear about my various court appearances.

‘Nothing much under there,’ I say, as Suze tries to pull up the rest of the carpet. I’ve had quite enough now. It’s cold in here, and the sun’s out. Just the right sort of weather for a loverly jubberly afternoon outside the Architect getting nicely sozzled.

But she’s fully exposed the trap door now and is easing it open. God knows how. And along with the damp and the fungus, there’s the distinct smell of mice. Only some people can smell mice; not many people know that. Something the doctor told me when he prescribed me my inhaler.

‘Incredible,’ she says, ‘Look at the steps, it’s like they’re smiling in the middle. They must be so old.’

Then she stops and looks at me. ‘Did you hear that?’

‘What?’ Those mice are getting to me now. I can feel my tubes constricting.

‘A voice or something. Listen.’

She’s right. It actually sounds like there’s someone down there. ‘No, I won’t have it,’ the voice says. ‘You just tell them I say no.’

‘He sounds pretty pissed off!’ she says, stepping back.

‘It’s just voices being carried along a pipe, I expect.’ I say, wheezing, ‘It’s all connected down there. Part of an underground stream. It’s not called Watergate Street for nothing, you know.’

‘Oooh, really?’

I’ve no idea, but I decide to just keep going with it. ‘Yes, tunnels too. Smugglers. The place was full of them.’

‘Honestly,’ she says, hugging herself. ‘This place. I love it. The light. The space. It’s ideal. Just what I need.’

‘Well, six months in advance and it’s all yours.’

‘Six months?’ She looks stricken. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly…’

As I thought: a time-waster.

‘But it’s been empty for a couple of months, hasn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ I say, opening the front door to clear the smell of mice. ‘An asset. If I let it go for less it’ll decrease in value.’ Fresh from the lips of Samantha, that little nugget. Hot on money, my sister.

Suze sighs. ‘All these closed shops, it’s such a shame. There’s a group of us. We’d turn this place around given the chance. Just like we did in the market. ‘

‘But you’ve no money?’

‘Well, not much – but isn’t it better to have some rent than none at all?’

‘Sorry, but I’m not a charity,’ I say, ushering her through the door. Away with the fairies, that’s what My Dear Sister would say. ‘Come back when you’ve found the funds.’

After I’ve seen the back of her, I fish out my inhaler and my hip flask, take a good couple of nips from both of them, and then retrieve my iPhone. It occurs to me I might as well take a look at what’s under that trap door since I’m here, because that’s just the sort of place people find something valuable. A hoard of silver, perhaps. And for a delectable few seconds, I imagine it: Samantha’s face as she hears my good fortune.

There’s a sheer drop on one side, no handrail, and the steps themselves have a distinct tilt, which makes me feel slightly woozy. Still, the light of my old iPhone manages quite well, careering one way and another until, without any warning at all, the steps just end. For a few milliseconds, my foot dangles, frantically searching for something, but there’s absolutely nothing there. Sweet FA. So I start to beat a hasty retreat backwards up the steps, but I’ve forgotten about the tilting, and for a second I teeter there, desperately trying to regain my balance, but it’s no good. Over I go. Arse over tit. Although of course I only actually realise this later. When I come to.

A drawing of the hidden staircase going down to the cellar

First thing I do is check the phone. Big ugly crack across the screen, but the torch is still working. I wait for the walls around me to settle, and then try get to my feet. Except I don’t. Ankle not having any of it. Absolute agony in fact. Yelp like a woman in childbirth and collapse back on the floor, clunking my head and the phone in the process. Check phone again. Still bloody working! Thank you God. Thank you Rhino astronaut-grade shock- proof casing. Try to send help message to My Dear Sister but the signal’s non-existent. Take a large swig from the old flask to dull the pain. And then another one.

It’s just then, as the Gaelic warmth of a thousand peaty glens is washing over me, that I see I am not alone. There’s a man. Correction: a weirdo. I can tell he’s a weirdo because despite all the trauma that’s happening directly in front of him, there’s absolutely no reaction. Suspecting ear pods, I try bellowing at him. ‘Hey you! Man down over here, for Chrissakes!’

But the blighter takes no notice. He’s fifty if he’s a day. Long robes. Tutting over something on the bench in front of him. A lamp as it turns out. Horrible smoky thing it is, but at least when he’s succeeded in lighting it I can see the rest of the place.

Wow! The nerve of the man! He’s clearly got some sort of business going on: bales of something along the wall, yardstick along the counter, a black metal cashbox.

‘And what do you think you’re doing?’ I say.

Nothing.

‘It might interest you to know that you’re speaking to the actual owner of this property and so you are, in fact, trespassing.’

Nothing again.

But then something occurs to me. Maybe I could take a cut. Could work out well for the two of us. But first I’ve got to attract his attention. Easier said than done. Pebble thrown across the room, more shouting, torchlight in the face. Nothing works. Now I notice something. Something truly odd. Killer steps have gone. Entire ceiling gone too. Steps going up somewhere and studded door now installed in one of the pointy archways as if it’s always been there. Just staring at this door when the one into the street opens. Younger man dressed in a pair of tights and bloomers. Another weirdo. Try yelling at him, but he’s deaf too.

Older man looks as if he’s just smelt something unpleasant, ‘Ah, there you are, William,’ he says, ‘I thought I could count on your absence for a little longer yet. Anything to report?’

‘Oh, the usual,’ William says, walking towards me past the bales of cloth. Soon he’s close enough to touch, but there’s no smell, no warmth, no movement of the air. Decide it must be some sort of projection. I look around me for a clue, but the walls are blank.

‘Nice bit of Flanders flannel, the odd Venetian damask. I’ve a couple of samples if you’re interested.’

The older man grunts. ‘That’s not what I meant, and you know it.’

William turns to look at him. ‘So, have you made up your mind?’

‘Yes, I’m not budging.’

‘Despite my taking it to the guild?’

‘You can do what you like. And so can the guild. What happens up there in my office is my business and I don’t want the world and his wife passing by poking in their noses.’

‘You should have been at the moot. All the rest of us are in full agreement: steps up to every third house and then a walkway between them.’

This is so engrossing. When my phone buzzes, I’m actually annoyed. It’s like someone interrupting a play. I glance down. A text that disappears before I can read it. Samantha? Did my message get through after all?

‘Just think of the good, Ranulph! If someone wants linen, this is where they’ll come.’

‘They come anyway.’

‘But even more people will come now. Good for everyone on the row.’

‘I’m not interested. You can do whatever you like. I’ll have no part of it.’

I reply to the text, but just as I press send, the dratted phone dies. And then, weirdly, the lantern splutters out too – as if it’s all connected.

‘Hello?’ I say into the sudden terrifying darkness, but nothing happens.

So I take another swig from the flask, and then another, but in terms of anaesthesia it’s a failure because when I try to stand again I find myself collapsing pretty smartish. I try calling out a few times, but no bugger’s listening. Even Samantha. But that’s pretty typical. Always been a self-centred old girl, My Dear Sister. No thought for anyone, particularly her little brother. I told her as much once. ‘Takes one to know one,’ she said. Probably right about that, thinking about it. Last of a long line of self- centred little nobodies. Every man for himself. And woman. Not a charitable act from one of us.

I can’t remember my eyes closing, but obviously they have. For a few seconds I wonder why I’m so cold and then I remember. In front of me is a faint glimmer.

‘No, William, just tell them I’m not having it!’

Really cold now. Strangely cold. Like that time I had the flu. Teeth chattering so hard I’m frightened I’m going to smash them. I reach for my flask then remember it’s empty.

‘No! I’m not having it!’ says a voice by my side.

Why not, I think. Couldn’t you just try? What harm would it do?

The chattering’s stopped. Everything’s stopped. My ankle has the same scary numbness as the rest of me.

Would it really have hurt My Dear Sister to check in on me now and again? Not that I’ve ever checked on her, I suppose.

‘I don’t care! You’re not building that there!’ Oh for Pete’s sake, Ranulph, just give it a rest.

‘No, I shan’t…’ he says, but he’s fading away. I open my eyes to the smell of mice. Someone’s there – in the square-shaped patch of daylight above me.

Close to my head is the bottom step.

‘No,’ says a girl’s voice. ‘It’s no good, he says we can’t.’

‘Miserable old…’

‘I know.’

‘It would be ideal, wouldn’t it? Toby just across the street… and then Rache next door with her pottery…’

‘Yes. Perfect. Just perfect.’

‘Anyone there?’ I call. Then, wary of my ankle, I start pulling myself upwards.

‘But he won’t hear of it?’

‘No. Won’t even contemp…’

Suze and some man with a pony tail. When they see me they stop.

‘My God, what’s happened?’ Suze asks, taking a step towards me. ‘Are you hurt? Do you want us to call someone?’

‘No, no,’ I say, ‘Enough of that blathering. Why don’t you find somewhere warm so we can work out a contract?’

© Clare Dudman

Clare Dudman is a writer who has lived in Chester for over 30 years and was the winner of the inaugural Sheriff of Cheshire’s Prize for Literature. She has since written four novels as well as short stories, a piece of psychogeography (‘Real Chester’), poetry and, most recently, a series of plays for the Chester Heritage Festival. Her work has been published by Penguin, Sceptre, Viking, One World, Serpent’s Tail and Seren, translated into four languages and has won awards from Arts Council England and the Scottish Book Trust.

claredudman.com

Illustration: © Tim Foxon