Formaldehyde by Daniel Bennett
She touched the dead. Muller told me. I would spend my weekends on a chrome BMX, riding the channels of the old river. Orange earth, dust from powdered sandstone. A broken up mill. A red bow and arrow, stolen by a boy who resembled Popeye. The shallow water like bitter tea. Red cranes on the horizon. They built a yoghurt factory on those fields, where everyone at school would end up working, long after I left. We were new in town. The rape fields behind the house set my whole family sneezing. You could see the yellow flowers from our kitchen. My mother bought homeopathic tablets and wrapped them in cling film, but they disintegrated into fine salts. Muller kept a vial of belladonna, to take at school. Hard round tablets, like white shotgun pellets. His parents would break up and he wouldn’t take it so well. He bought Gun Mart, and cut up his arm with a survival knife. The scars looked like white wax. I tried it too, but it hurt. I said we should be blood brothers, but he said, no, he was scared of AIDS. He wrote a poem about a dragon, so beautiful I thought he’d stolen it. Muller said that Deborah Finn touched the dead. I never rode my bike to school. I rode past the church, I rode down to the weir. A boy would drown there, his foot caught in a grate. Another died while cycling the wrong way down a one-way street. We collected these unfortunates. After school, I would meet my father at the fire station. The smell of polish and leather, the engines waxed and gleaming. One time, my father showed me a radio, which would signal the four minute warning for a nuclear war. He flicked the dial, but it sounded of static. My mother said, ‘I wish they could give us all a pill’. We listened closely. At Muller’s I could watch VHS tapes late into the night. Red Dawn. First Blood. Cobra. America felt closer, somehow. Its rules had a purity. Once, Muller’s mother caught us masturbating to The Year of the Dragon. A Chinook helicopter appeared from an airbase, and we left our classes to watch it. Muller said, ‘Deborah Finn touches the dead.’ Her father worked as a mortician. I was short and slight. Her breasts had grown out. It troubled me, like she’d found a link somehow. Every weekend, she stripped dead bodies for her father. She washed down the naked corpses with soap. She injected them with formaldehyde. One night, I awoke to the sound of klaxons. I left my bed and sat on the darkened landing. I sobbed as I waited for my parents to come. Four minutes. I imagined the look in my mother’s eyes. Five minutes. A theme tune sounded. Ten minutes. I stood up and went to bed. The next day, I cycled to the weir, and we all dared each other to swim towards the middle.
Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives and works in London. His poems have appeared in a number of places, most recently in The Yellow Chair Review, Structo, The Stinging Fly and The Manchester Review. He is also the author of the novel All the Dogs.