Gnomic, by Tom Fletcher
artwork by Beth Ward

The fucking gnome is out there doing his fucking recycling again. Though I donít believe one gnome can generate so much rubbish that heís out there at the recycling bins every day, sometimes for up to half an hour, limping around with his big grey beard and his big shiny head. I think he goes looking in all the normal bins for waste that should have been sorted but hasnít been, and then makes a point of sorting it on behalf of all the other residents, in the same way heíll whack stickers on cars that he deems to have been inconveniently parked, inconveniently that is to other residents, though why he doesnít let those other residents take action themselves is not clear to me. Basically he is an officious little gnome, a rude little thing, mostly an irritant but also a threat, weirdly so. He acts like he has power and so we all wonder if maybe he does. ĎWe allí being all the other residents of this block of flats, not gnomes, all of us with windows at our kitchen sinks, windows that look out over the communal car-park which is where the bins are. So when any one resident does their washing up, theyíre looking out over the car-park, and more often than not the gnome is there, either fiddling with the bins or picking up stones and depositing them at the edges of the car-park, with a look on his face as if somebody else should have done it already, but itís a gravel car-park, know what I mean? What kind of madman would try to sort small pebbles from gravel? He also walks around the car-park looking slowly at cars, as if weighing up whether or not they are parked considerately, whether or not to sticker them. Before stickering he will leave a small notice under the windscreen wiper, a notice which both expresses displeasure at the positioning of the vehicle and threatens the application of Ďstickers of increasing levels of adhesivenessí should the notice be ignored. What a fucker.

I donít hate the gnome because he is a gnome, in case you were thinking something like that. I hate him because he has absolutely no manners whatsoever, like none at all. He accosted me about my parking once Ė an occasion on which, I should be clear, I had parked exceedingly considerately, blocking nobody in, obstructing no garages or bin-paths etc Ė and yet he neglected even to say hello. Just shouted as I was turning the key in the front door to my particular block. He had seen me parking from I donít know where, probably over by the bins, and then chased Ė chased! Ė me round the side of the building. Though I hadnít realised during the chase that he was chasing me, I had been aware of the tapping of his walking-stick behind, and so had walked a little faster than perhaps I would have done otherwise.

ĎHow long you leaving it there?í was what he shouted. A shout like a bark. I turned to converse, much as I didnít want to. I was friendly with him and there was no way he could have known that my sentiment was forced. I thought he would understand that there simply were not enough spaces in the car-park for all of the residents Ė a problem which actually I suspect secretly thrills the gnome Ė and explained the situation with all characteristic politeness, but he wanted to shout, he wanted to fight. Anyway this is typical of the gnome. I donít want to bang on about one particular example because any one particular example of anything can be undermined, argued any which way really, rationalised or explained away, and thatís the problem with examples isnít it. Demanding examples is a tactic exercised by somebody losing an argument. ĎGive me an example,í they say, and then you oblige, and then the argument becomes about just one small thing, one instance, one point in time that doesnít mean a jot really, that is small and petty and embarrassing, and the argument is derailed and you feel like a fool, and the great big thing of which the example is merely symptomatic is forgotten, it escapes and runs off to fester elsewhere. The gnome probably indulges in exactly that type of argument. Anyway. The gnome has no manners and is positively aggressive in his demeanour towards all other residents, treating us like a psychotic childless miser might treat unruly children, despite all us other residents not being in the least bit unruly or transgressive. I mean for fuckís sake we all know how to recycle. But I swear he goes through our bins looking for evidence to the contrary.

So the gnome. What I havenít told you is that he is also my neighbour. My rightways-neighbour. See, we have down-neighbours, up-neighbours, rightways-neighbours and leftways too. What they are is neighbours below, above, to the right, and to the left, respectively. Amongst ourselves, we residents drop the Ďneighbourí and just refer to each other as Ďmy downwardsí or Ďmy rightways.í So the gnome is my rightways. And in all our time in these flats our only conversations have been those begat by his nasty righteousness. He started early on after we moved in Ė he was here first, he was here before anyone else I know Ė and so I have never been much minded to talk to him in a normal, happy, neighbourly way, instead seeking to avoid him, waiting for him to exit the stairwell before I enter it, etc etc. We have had this relationship for many years. Decades in fact, since we moved in in the early years of the twenty-first century. Decades and decades.

So the bastard gnome is my neighbour. I watch him from my kitchen-sink window, up to my elbows in suds, and itís that time of day when you suddenly realise that you should have the lights on, i.e. youíre standing there or sitting there in what is actually quite a dark room. But as I suggest, my hands are all wet and I am watching the gnome, so I make no movement towards the light-switch, which, naturally, is over by the door, some three or four strides away.

The car-park then. The car-park is quite nice as car-parks go. As I say, itís gravel. Itís bounded on one side by the blocks of flats Ė relatively small, four-storey affairs Ė and on the other by a row of garages, which you might expect one garage per flat, but no, it doesnít work that way. There arenít enough garages. Basically some flats have garages assigned, and others donít. Mine doesnít. The gnomeís does, of course. A garage in which he keeps a beautiful old motorbike. The bike is too big for him but he straps on a couple of wood-and-metal leg-extension type things with which he can mount and ride it. His own invention. He sits right up at the front of the seat in order to hold the handlebars and the leg-extensions are designed just perfectly so as to support this kind of position.

You can tell the gnomeís garage door because it has five padlocks on it, whereas all the others just have the one. All the garage doors are painted the same colour, a very fetching avocado-flesh shade. The long corrugated roof of all the garages is thick with green moss and often leaves and conkers, because behind the garages is a row of big old trees, really nice ones. And there, down at the end of the row of garages, is the row of recycling bins, which is where the gnome is right now, fussing in his denim shirt and leather waistcoat, a string round his neck laden with keys. Behind the bins is a gateway in the fence. Through the gateway is basically mud and vegetation; a now defunct railway cutting. Defunct as far as trains are concerned anyway. The gnome loves it in there, though. I donít bother with it in case heís lurking amongst the bushes, waiting to jump out and have a go about some kind of supposed misdemeanour, like maybe that time he told me off for putting pizza boxes down the shared rubbish chute and blocking it which, I should say, was an assumption on his part because I donít even like pizza and have never had a pizza box even in this flat at all, let alone in a fit state for disposal, i.e. empty. I couldnít eat so much as a slice even if I tried.

I havenít told you about the rubbish chute yet. I share it with the gnome; it is in a shared space between our two flats, a small brown space, all dust and rust and furniture left behind by previous residents who moved out years ago, decades ago, probably driven out by the pure niggle force of the gnome himself. My kitchen has a door to this space and so does the gnomeís kitchen. Sometimes when I am in the kitchen I hear him enter the space and deposit something within the chute, which involves opening this kind of hatch, a noisy enterprise, it squeaks and creaks and groans like an exhausted human being At those times, when the gnome is just a door away from my kitchen, from me, I feel a weird shiver, an odd discomfort, somehow much more intense than when I just encounter him in the flesh. And when I go into the shared space I feel panicked, too close to him, like at any moment he might pounce from his flat with a knife in his hand or some kind of incredibly adhesive sticker that heís going to apply to my face. I had this nightmare once that he put a sticker on my face and when I pulled it off it took my skin with it which to be honest, well, I am quite old now after all and my skin is thin, so. You have to think about these things. You shouldnít have to but you do.

I watch from the window as the gnome finishes up with the bins and gathers some stones from the gravel and deposits them at the very edge of the car-park. These are stones that are not originally part of the gravel, you understand. I watch as he exits the car-park via the gate into the railway cutting. All this talking about him, all this thinking about him, itís not healthy. I can feel myself shaking slightly which is a sure sign Iím angry in a deep way, I get shaky and go cold.

I know what Iím going to do if I can get in. Iím going to find those stickers and bin them. No. Burn them, or else heíll probably find them again in one of his regular trawls. I imagine him gleeful inside the bins themselves, jumping up and down and laughing to himself as he finds like incriminating magazines or empty anti-depressant bottles, stroking his keys and drumming out some kind of rhythm with his walking stick. I mean he is not quite that small though sometimes I wonder if he can change his own size. Sometimes at night I hear this echoey knocking sound and imagine him climbing up or down the inside of the rubbish chute, clearing obstructions, or just ascending and descending purely for his own deep reason.

I dry the now cold greasy dishwater off my hands and arms with a tea-towel. It really is dark now. Outside I mean. I undo the bolt (singular) and go into the shared space. This is as far ahead as I have imagined, because if his garage door is anything to go by then his shared space door is probably covered in fucking deadbolts and chains or something, or electrified.

Dust in here swirls around like grains in a liquid and if it wasnít for him, if it wasnít for the gnome himself, this is the kind of place that could become a favourite place of mine, quiet and private and old and marked, thatís the important thing, it has not been kept clean or tidy, it has Ė by some kind of unthinking collusion between successive residents I suppose Ė been granted the right to let time mark it as it passes, like time is something that drags itself over the world leaving scratches and grooves. So yes, if it wasnít for that officious little pissant I would love this shared space, I would probably actually spend time here, which is something it is not designed for, itís not really a room as such, itís just an architectural side-effect almost, something thatís just come into being as a result of other essentials, but still.

From this side the gnomeís kitchen door looks like mine, that is white-painted wood with a frosted glass window at face-height. My face-height that is, not his. Funny really that a gnome would choose to live in a property ostensibly too big for him but then what if anything about the gnome makes sense? I try the handle but no surprise the door does not just open. Thereís a rattle from the other side which probably confirms what I was thinking about there being chains to deal with.

All of a sudden Iím shaking the door handle and shouting ĎUngodly gnome!í and the chains are rattling and Iím banging on the frosted glass with my weak fist, and I can feel the bruises appearing on my skin instantaneously as on old fruit, and with each smack of the glass my knuckle bones grind together, making chalk in my finger joints. But itís OK; hereís a metal bucket, galvanized and so covered in shimmering zinc scales, and it crashes through the glass easily, almost like I didnít have to do anything apart from pick it up and let it go.

Scrabbling down the other side of the door I find chains, bolts, the rest. Thankfully no potentially poison-tipped spikes or live wires though, nothing deadly, not yet anyway. I have to reach right through the broken pane because theyíre all low down and I feel small shards of glass pierce me up under my armpit. The shards are stuck well into an accumulation of white paints, decades of white paints built up over the surface of the door and slopped around the edges of the window. The window before I broke it obviously. I undo the chains and bolts and the rest and stand back. Now there is blood on those remaining glass shards and that white paint, a few thin red lines hanging straight down with bulbous drips at their lower ends. I know theyíre red but they look brown in the soft, friendly special light of the shared space.

Through the gnomeís door, then. The broken glass on the floor beyond sighs as the door sweeps through it, and that metal bucket lies against the far wall like something dead. I find myself in the gnomeís kitchen, a mirror of my own layout-wise, but in most ways not a reflection at all. The gnome has built a wooden structure for himself, all gantries and ladders and steps. There is basically a walkway that runs around the whole room at about halfway between the floor and the tops and then ladders from that up to another higher walkway from which the gnome can presumably access the upper cupboards, the ones above the oven etc. This higher walkway is suspended from the ceiling by frankly shoddy-looking carpentry and knotwork and itís a wonder that a creature so keen on the minutiae of procedure in and around the block can be so slapdash in his own home, but then he does strike me as the type to maintain supreme confidence in his own abilities.

There are various appliances around the kitchen that I donít fully recognise and they all bear the hallmarks of the same DIY approach, so much so that I canít work out what theyíre even supposed to do any more. I canít see any food. The room is silent which is surprising because in my kitchen I can always hear the birds from the trees behind the garages, even when I have my kitchen windows closed. I look out of the window just to check, just to be absolutely one hundred percent definitely sure that his windows look out over the same place my windows do, and they do, itís OK, itís the same car-park, but still, the silence is different. I see that his windows are all taped shut which wonít make a difference to the sound, it doesnít answer the sound question, but itís noteworthy all the same I think, the yellow masking tape mucky and old-looking.

When I go into the living room at first I think that thereís some kind of mistake because I find myself in a thin dark corridor, not the living room at all. But no, the wall Iím facing is not a wall but the back of a room-high shelving unit that runs parallel with the actual wall, leaving a thin passage in between. I follow the wall around hoping to see the other side of the shelves but when I get to the corner the shelves too turn at a right-angle, following the line of the room around.

My armpit is starting to hurt or rather I am becoming more aware of it as the adrenaline fades, I suppose, my right arm becoming inflexible. The right side of my body is wet and when I look it is dark.

I get to the end of this wall and so am standing at the windows that look out of the front of the block of the flats, over the lawns Ė that is, the opposite side of the building to the windows that look over the car-park.

The gnome has basically built a big block in the middle of his living room out of shelves, a big like cube. Or it would be a cube but for one side of it which is the side that faces the walls with the windows and is lower than the others; itís only two feet high, compared to the other three sides that reach up to the ceiling. And the inside of the cube is hollow. The shelves the cube is made out of are jammed full of books and objects like books Ė files and folders, wads of paper bound with red post office elastic bands, overflowing envelopes. There is a stillness to the structure.

I clamber over the low side and into the middle of the thing. Even here the gnomeís handiwork is evident, thin ladders clinging tightly to the vertical units with what look like wheels at the bottom of them, possibly Ė probably Ė so that the gnome can pull himself and the ladders to the left and right without having to descend each time he wants to move. The ladders are also curved at the top in order to hook onto the shelves and not topple backwards.

The shelves are sub-divided into smaller compartments, each more or less square. My earlier impression of the shelves being jammed full is not completely accurate, because some of these small compartments are not full at all. Most are, mind Ė full to bursting. I canít help but wonder why he doesnít just shuffle things around a bit and even out the strain.

Thereís only one completely empty square. Itís on the top shelf, and I can just about get my left hand into it if I stretch. Definitely empty. The squares arenít labelled in any way so how does he know where to put anything? Though some of the books to the right of the empty square are labelled actually, theyíve got grubby white stickers on them. I reach for one such stickered book, the cover of which I thought was leather but feels weird and hard and plasticky, not like leather at all. I pull it down.

The sticker has my name on it. My name! I turn the book around but it is not a book at all, itís some small plastic box designed to look like a book. I prise it open and itís actually like a case for one of those old VHS tapes you used to get, like a disguise for a VHS that makes the tape look like an old leather-bound book. Thereís no tape inside the box though Ė just scraps of paper that flutter out all over the floor. I gather a couple up and theyíre all ripped-up shreds really, nothing Ė except Ė some handwriting is there on a couple Ė faded but definitely there. Itís my address. The address has been torn through but if you pieced the bits of paper together Ė itís an envelope. It was an envelope before I tore it up anyway, because it was me that tore it up, because thatís what I always did with envelopes before dropping them into the waste paper. This looks like it had a birthday card in it or something, some kind of card anyway, one of those nice plain-coloured thick envelopes, not one with a horrible transparent window or printed address or any of that.

A sympathy card maybe. Maybe it was one of them.

There are more shreds in this little box than could have come from one envelope. That little bastard must have collected them all from the recycling bins, and he must have been doing it going back years. Years and years and years. What a cretin. What a creep.

I pull down some other stuff from what I realise is Ďmy compartmentí or, in fact, as I see packages and boxes labelled with her name, may she rest in peace, actually itís Ďour compartmentí. There are notebooks in her name with envelopes stuck onto every left-hand page Ė she never ripped them up like I used to Ė and then opposite, on the right-hand page, the gnome has tried to copy the handwriting from the envelope! Damn near managed it most of the time as well the little fuck.

My right handís not doing exactly what I tell it so Iím getting quite clumsy and knocking stuff all over the floor but heís going to know Iíve been here anyway, thereís nothing I can do about it. Also, thereís blood on the floor, pooling around my shoes whenever I stand in one place for any length of time, and Iím leaving muddy red footprints.

Every compartment relates to a resident of the block, or to be more specific to a flat in the block, and their positions correspond with the positions of their respective flats, and each compartment contains handwritten envelopes and examples of the gnomeís attempts at copying the writing. The low side represents the garages I think, and the compartments in that all have small locked covers.

It is a collection of personal scraps. Things we wouldnít think of keeping but donít want any others to have either. I mean what kind of creep would keep this stuff. Her stuff. My Lilyís birthday card envelopes. Her handwriting.

Iím glad Iíve muckied the gnomeís collection up by tramping blood all around in it. Iím on my knees now, having somehow descended without realising, and I can feel a warm pulse in my armpit, a suddenly distracting glug-glug-glug. I reach out to the shelves closest to me and pull everything off. I wish I had fire. I canít stand up so not a lot of options left to me really. Or none at all might be more accurate. I think I can hear the gnome coming up the stairwell, the tapping of his stick, his gruff voice as he grumbles to presumably himself. An intense pain is developing. I am lying here in the middle of this collection of pilfered trivia and probably dying. I mean the things themselves are trivial but not the collection itself, not the act of collecting, not the arrangement. These are far from trivial. These are ominous and important.

The flat door is opening. The gnome will see the blood on the floor more or less immediately upon entering if, as I suspect, Iíve left a trail all the way from the shared space. He shuffles about on the other side of the shelving units and then suddenly he stops shuffling and gasps, I hear him gasp, and I reckon thatís him seeing the blood. Then the shuffling recommences and the tapping of the stick and heís following the blood around and I can also hear his keys rattling, his massive bunch of keys. This really hurts. I am aching really deep down, like the kind of ache you get from intense cold but right now without the cold itself.

The next thing the gnome is standing over me, narrowing his eyes at me, prodding me with his walking stick which Iím not sure he even needs.

ĎWhatís this?í heís muttering. ĎA beast in the library, eh?í Heís not actually talking to me, I know that. Heís just talking. ĎA big beast broken in to the library, hmm?í In his hands heís holding another load of paper, no doubt harvested from his last bin trip. ĎDidnít think the big beasts could even read,í he says, Ďbecause they never pay attention to the stickers.í And he has the bloody gall to just tap right past me and start putting the new rubbish on the shelves, humming to himself. Humming!

I find I canít say anything. Library, he called it. I can move my hands and feet but not my legs or arms. More than anything else I feel humiliated. The gnome is up on a ladder, humming from outside of my field of vision, then back down on the floor. Then sitting in the corner, reading a sheaf of envelopes as if it is some kind of book and chortling to himself.

This is probably exactly what he wanted; me all caked in filth on his library floor after having achieved precisely nothing in my anger. A drained old man trapped and dying in his discard monument. All I can see now is the white of paper against blackness, the palest things being the last to fade. Paper all over the floor. I canít read it but I know the name on the closest envelope is Lily. Who wrote that name I donít know. The gnome himself could have written it. Or it could have been me. I can still hear him humming and muttering but the sound is distant now, like when youíre waking up and your Lily is singing in the other room. I feel like Iím supposed to have learned something but I donít know what.


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