Quickmires, fiction by Mark Staniforth

The obit­u­ar­ies made the Quick­mires out to be good peo­ple: hard-work­ing, good-to-hon­est, God-fear­ing coun­try folk — all that shit. They spun more fine words once they were gone than the fam­i­ly ever had hurled at them as they preached their fire-and-brim­stone sto­ries of immi­nent doom in the Kwik Save car park most Sab­bath morn­ings.

Nine of them pegged it in the flames that Christ­mas Day night: old Artie and Missie, their three eldest — Jared, Nehemi­ah — Nemo for short — and Rachel; a cou­ple of oth­er lass­es they'd snared in from out of the dale and had always claimed to be dis­tant cousins; and a pair of blue-eyed, blond-haired bairns of no more than six months old whose names and parent­age stayed unknown.

There were those who said they had it com­ing, stack­ing up all them gas bot­tles to keep them warm at the end of the world. Oth­ers whis­pered they signed their death war­rants the day Jared Quick­mire start­ed step­ping out with the lass of the Thack­er­ays, had her bun up her hair and dress right prop­er and as good as sew up that famous filthy gob of hers for keeps.

They made the ver­dict acci­den­tal death. Those who made it so were town folks, from the same cloth as those who wrote the Quick­mires were good peo­ple. Again, there was no queue of locals ready to pro­nounce oth­er­wise: hard­ly no-one will­ing to spill their con­spir­a­cies for the TV crews who were quick to join the hunt for clues. But it's a fact plain as day that just about every­one round the place kept their own the­o­ry as to why the ver­dict was as bull­shit as the obits: some said sui­cide, oth­ers said them Thack­er­ay boys had been itch­ing for some­thing more ever since they'd head­ed up in a con­voy of four-by-fours with enough loaded shot­guns to leave noth­ing to chance, and stole back their lass from under the Quick­mires' noses.

You could say at least those who per­ished in the flames did so in the seem­ing sure knowl­edge of where they were head­ed. The whole lot of them would head down the Kwik Save, stand in a straight line behind Artie rant­i­ng out his eter­nal damna­tions. He'd rock back on his heels and punch out his words like a fly­weight box­er while the rest of them — Missie, Jared, Rachel, Nemo, some­times the younger ones wore paint­ed-on whole­some smiles and eager head nods that said Judge­ment Day was a thing to savour.

Some­times, folk would nudge up close and throw insults. The bravest would go face to face, spit back their own raw the­o­ries on evo­lu­tion. Some tossed eggs. The Quick­mires would nev­er address you direct, no mat­ter the provo­ca­tion. They'd keep preach­ing out their warn­ings while the yolks dripped down their fronts. Then soon as the church bells start­ed clang­ing, they'd pack back in their old wag­on and head back up that long, dead-end track of theirs for anoth­er week of near-on hiber­nat­ing.

There were few dared ven­ture up the Quick­mires' lane fur­ther than the third locked gate with its daubed-on 'Keep Out' sign: a post box was propped by the side, though it was sel­dom filled. Far as folk could make out, the Quick­mires were fair­ly much self-suf­fi­cient. They plucked out veg from the shal­low moor soil and grazed a rag-tag bunch of sheep and goats. Some­times, Missie Quick­mire would ven­ture down in town and clean the Kwik Save shelves out of soup tins. She'd nod her thanks but nev­er look those who served her in the eye.

Folk had been work­ing on fig­ur­ing out the Quick­mires long before their deaths, and their deaths did not dis­cour­age them. Truth is there's only a hand­ful could pro­vide any answers, and there's not so much as a soul still draw­ing breath who'd dare con­front the Thack­er­ay broth­ers in the hunt for clues.

What­ev­er, it can be said with­out con­tra­dic­tion that Jared fair tamed that girl. Zeta was a Thack­er­ay a mile off, coarse-tongued and glin­ty-glared, and just as prone to think­ing up new ways of express­ing her fury as her good-for-noth­ing old­er broth­ers. Her scrap with big Bet­sy War­dle over some slight or oth­er was a thing of leg­end: it last­ed two whole hours and swung from the car park woods to the play­ground and up Lunns’ farm, and had them both stripped down to their bras and gouged in blood. It fin­ished when big Bet­sy War­dle col­lapsed from exhaus­tion and rather than accept­ing the win Zeta Thack­er­ay went and rolled Bet­sy War­dle right in the chick­en coup and infect­ed her up so bad she spent a week on a drip and to this day gets a thump­ing in her lug­hole that keeps her up nights.

A week or so in Jared Quickmire’s com­pa­ny and Zeta Thack­er­ay was act­ing ready to drop to her knees and beg for­give­ness. Whether it was her who set her heart on Jared or him intent on doing some con­vert­ing is not clear. What is known is that Jared always was the finest look­ing of the Quick­mires, with his shock of blond hair and eyes deep and green as moss pools, and there were plen­ty of lass­es who would hap­pi­ly have born them­selves again in his com­pa­ny. Those that saw them togeth­er spoke of Zeta Thack­er­ay fair drown­ing in them eyes of his. She took to wear­ing the same shape­less sack dress­es favoured by Missie and Rachel and washed the bleach from her hair and the coarse­ness from her mouth, moved into that Quick­mire farm­house pret­ty much lock, stock and bar­rel.

That was more or less that as far as Zeta was con­cerned, that is till them broth­ers of hers heard enough word of the Quick­mires’ God-weird­ing ways they took it upon them­selves to rus­tle her up a lit­tle unex­pect­ed sal­va­tion, Thack­er­ay-style. No soon­er had Zeta been hauled out than she was paired up with a squad­die from an army camp on the edge of town. They said he bagged her for half his year­ly wage and the promise he'd take her as far from Fryup as pos­si­ble and keep it that way. Some say she came out bleached of her mind and is more than like­ly see­ing out her days in some sort of padded cell, or else six foot under in the only place the Thack­er­ays could find to hide their shame.

 

Rachel was Jared's twin: like him, gold-haired and deep-eyed and the type who got plen­ty a lad in the Kwik Save audi­ence schem­ing to get under that sack-cloth.There were even boys who took to hang­ing round the Quick­mires' lane bot­tom, fig­ur­ing if Jared had took a friend for him­self it fol­lowed that Rachel might soon be on the look-out for a suit­able hus­band.

Greg Bul­mer was the only known lad to ever speak to her: he was head­ing home from lamp­ing with a ripe hare hung round his shoul­ders and his cou­ple of lurchers slunk down by his side. He was wad­ing out through thick fog and chanced a lit­tle up the Quick­mires' lane and all of a sud­den out loomed Rachel, dressed for a sum­mer week­end despite the freeze. She said, ‘can I help you?’ and eyed Greg Bul­mer in a way that made his mutts coil up round his knees, and Greg to drop his quar­ry and not stop leg­ging it till he reached right home. He said lat­er, ‘sure as hell I’d seen a ghost that night, that I’d pick up the paper next day and find some Quick­mire tragedy, and the way things worked out, I can't help reck­on­ing it was some kind of sign.' Those who doubt­ed Greg Bulmer's sto­ry were direct­ed in his back yard, where from that day on his mutts shook and whined up each time a fresh fog fell, and nev­er did catch anoth­er hare in the rest of their sad-arsed lives.

 

Nehemi­ah — Nemo — did not share the good looks of his twin sib­lings. His eyes were mud­dy and his build was sharp and harsh. Word was Nemo was the weak link, han­kered more for good life than his God. Nemo had been more seen for a while, rac­ing his old yel­low Chevette round the lanes with its win­dows wound down and Megadeth tracks shak­ing out of the stereo, and there was plen­ty of talk he was see­ing Tara Mar­ley on the sly. It hadn't escaped notice that Nemo had gone absent from the Kwik Save parade for the cou­ple of Sab­baths before the fire all but wiped them out. Tara Mar­ley said noth­ing then and has said noth­ing since. Word was while the Quick­mire place was still smok­ing, she sat through the cop calls struck numb with either shock or secrets.

 

There was just one Quick­mire who sur­vived the flames. The fire­men in the first truck to arrive on the scene told how they almost mowed down a skin­ny young kid stood out front in the mud tracks. She wore a grub­by lit­tle smock dress and stared out big blank eyes while her sib­lings' screams lit the sky. Dinah Quick­mire was push­ing eight years old. She got shunt­ed off to some oth­er long-lost cousins while folk did their best to try to make sense of things.

For round about sev­en years the Quick­mire farm stood black and ruined and there wasn't hard­ly a soul had the nerve to go snoop­ing. Boys would hang round the lane end past sun­set and swear if the wind blew right you could still hear the screams. But over time the inter­est eased and it seemed the fire had about licked the Quick­mires clean out of his­to­ry.

Then one morn­ing when the sky hung red and the rooks cawed round the bare tree­tops, Dinah Quick­mire came home. She arrived with a bunch of those so-called rela­tion folks and they set about work­ing patch­ing up the old place. They toiled all the day­light hours and kept them­selves to them­selves. They waved off offers of help from folk who sensed the chance of being cen­tre of atten­tion. Once they'd fin­ished, save the scorch marks on the brick­work, you would nev­er have known of the tragedy that once went on under that roof. Soon enough, Dinah came to tak­ing up her old man's place out­side the Kwik Save, jab­bing her Armaged­dons like the best of them. She wore shoul­der-length hair black as coal dust, and her eyes were same drown­ing type as her eldest sib­lings. There were plen­ty of boys reck­oned those Sab­bath they got a glimpse of sal­va­tion.

 

That first sum­mer home, Dinah Quick­mire took to swim­ming at the rock­pool most Sat­ur­day morn­ings. It was Ged Black­stock who caught sight of her first, as he head­ed up the lane in the hope of hook­ing rain­bows. Fact is that day he hauled in a whole lot more. Dinah's swim­suit was low-cut and gloss-white and stuck to her new-grown curves like cel­e­bra­tion cake icing. You might have thought Ged would have kept the sight for him­self, but he had the kind of gob that could keep noth­ing in for long. Soon a bunch of boys had gath­ered. They hid behind the bush­es, watched her stroke the water, shake dry in the dawn light. There was some­thing in her ways that kept them silent. Each time end­ed the same, with Dinah hook­ing back on her push-bike and head­ing back up the old track to that cursed old farm of hers.

Soon enough the tall talk start­ed and it was no sur­prise when Jim Mars­den vowed he'd be the first to tame her. Jim Mars­den had fucked just about every oth­er his-age girl round the place by the time he was fif­teen, and he reck­oned his quick wit and a bunch of Old Tes­ta­ment vers­es he'd lodged in his brain since hang­ing round Kwik Save would be enough to do the trick.

One morn­ing, while Dinah was stroking through the lake's far reach­es, Jim Mars­den stripped down to his box­ers and wad­ed right on out. He flashed a thumbs-up and gasped as he sunk in the cold. The ear­ly sun dap­pled the lake sur­face. Jim Mars­den swam slow out of ear-shot, kept a safe dis­tance from Dinah who flipped to back-stroke and car­ried on seem­ing­ly unawares. She reached the edge of the lake as usu­al, shook out and pulled up a tow­el over her shone-up skin. Jim Mars­den shiv­ered out all bug-eyed soon after, made out he'd snared him­self a good thing. When Dinah set back off up the Quick­mire lane, leav­ing drip-tracks like a kind of lure, Jim Mars­den ducked up after her, haul­ing Ged with him for proof.

 

Two weeks lat­er, that same lane was trod down with traf­fic as the whole place lent a hand to the Mars­dens and Black­stocks try­ing to hunt out their boys. They hacked back the gorse and poked round the lake side while a pair of cop divers did their best to dredge the murk. The cops were quick to fence off the farm­house on account of those who claimed they knew full well the answer to the boys' fate lay behind those Quick­mire doors. The cops drove Dinah and the rest of them out in a blacked-up van while a Thack­er­ay-led mob roared and hollered. They kept them in two days for ques­tions, and good as stripped the place back to its old knock-down self. There were plen­ty of rumours over what they found. There was talk they'd start­ed hoard­ing the gas tanks again, and their clos­est out­house was back full of food tins to last at least six months. There were bags of cash and piles of guns, and a pack of cyanide pills on stand­by in case Judge­ment Day got a lit­tle too hot. There were a pair of blue-eyed, blond-haired bairns in the cel­lar, with snow-white skin as they'd nev­er seen day­light. There was all that shit and more. But what they sure didn't find was any shred of sug­ges­tion that Jim Mars­den and Ged Black­stock had ever made it that far.

 

Eight months lat­er the cops shelved the case. There were enough had start­ed to reck­on Jim Mars­den and Ged Black­stock had cooked the whole thing up as a means for get­ting away. It was a just about believ­able sto­ry where Jim Mars­den was con­cerned. He'd been boast­ing over screw­ing a girl from a tough part of town, the kind of girl whose folks made the Thack­er­ays out like guardian angels. Jim Mars­den had been work­ing dou­ble shifts at the butcher's, and some claimed he'd spoke of sav­ing his cash for a one-way tick­et out of the place before the girl in ques­tion start­ed to show. They reck­oned he'd come to realise that only sup­posed death was ever going to be good enough for the fam­i­ly in ques­tion to stop from sniff­ing him out.

Ged Black­stock was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. His folks were fifth gen­er­a­tion Fryup farm­ers and the whole bunch of them had rarely ever been known to ven­ture beyond Fryup lim­its. Ged had shown no incli­na­tion to be dif­fer­ent, and his hedge-hair and scrawny stick-out frame had pret­ty much made up his mind to show no incli­na­tion where girls were con­cerned. Some said his trout poach­ing trips were just a front, that he'd grown sick of the whole farm­ing busi­ness and couldn't face telling his old man he wasn't up with the first-born tra­di­tion, but some­how it didn't ring true.

 

The Mars­dens and Black­stocks are just about the only ones who still hold out hope of some­thing. Each anniver­sary, they paste posters and launch TV appeals. They've paid for the lake to be dredged up twice more. There's been folk head­ed out of the for­est with tales of wild-haired tramps, and more than twice the Kwik Save store room's been bur­gled of long-life food tins. They've even had a medi­um head in the Quick­mire house, which is back to derelict. They say he head­ed out with noth­ing but a snow-white swim­suit to show. It's prob­a­bly bull­shit, but that's what they say.

Mark Stan­i­forth is a writer and jour­nal­ist from North York­shire, Eng­land. His e-book of short sto­ries, Fryup­dale, is avail­able via Smash­words. He blogs ran­dom book reviews at Eleuthero­pho­bia. He likes box­ing, cur­ry and every­thing writ­ten by Don­ald Ray Pol­lock.

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2 Responses to Quickmires, fiction by Mark Staniforth

  1. Pingback: Quickmires « Mark Staniforth

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Mas­ter of the knock-out metaphor: 'Dinah's swim­suit was low-cut and gloss-white and stuck to her new-grown curves like cel­e­bra­tion cake icing'.
    I don't read much short fic­tion, but this one had me hooked…

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