Short Story: The Rag-And-Bone Man
THE RAG-AND-BONE MAN
By Graeme Keeton
The rag-and-bone man takes away the things you do not want. When he was living, he sold what he found to London’s merchants, making pennies here and there for a piece of rag or a bit bone.The bones would be whittled down and smoothed to make knife handles and children’s toys. Greasy bones fetched more than dry ones, since the fat could be melted down and used for soap. And coloured rags were worth more than plain ones.
He has no use for money now, the rag-and-bone man, and continues his work only because it is what he is good at. He goes where people are in the most desperate of need, not because he is a charitable man, but because he is a scavenger. The rag-and-bone man is neutral in that regard, in that he does not pass judgement on those who rid themselves of whatever they rid themselves.
All the rag-and-bone man sees is the potential for profit, either of the item as a whole, or of its raw materials. Even now, when to him a penny is as worthless as a pound, the rag-and-bone man upholds certain standards.
The truth of it is this, if you have something that he can profit from — even if the idea of profit is now only habitual thinking — he will take it from you, no questions asked. Maggie Lee had something that he could profit from, something he would not hesitate about clutching in his flea-bitten, fingerless-gloved hands. What Maggie Lee had to offer was, for a bone-picker no longer of this world, an exceptionally rare and welcome treat. Indeed, had he known her intentions, and had he the ability to do so, he might have forsaken his scavenger nature and reached his clammy, animal fat-greased fingers up inside of her and pulled the thing out himself.
‘The leftovers,’ he would say, presumptuously, as he scraped the rest into a dirty old sack.
It was late October, and London was well and truly whipping itself into a frenzy of fabric witches hats and the kind of pumpkins nobody wants to eat, their carved expressions usually looking more apologetic than frightening. A cold snap had pointed the city’s collective mind squarely in the direction of Halloween-themed cocktails and costumed parties under razor-sharp crescent moons. There was now an almost constant smell of woodsmoke and soot in the air, as well. For the revellers it was a time to celebrate being one of the living, but the thing Maggie feared was real; it was growing inside of her, and she knew that she could not take care of it.
Maggie lived as a lodger in a grotty one-bedroom house, with an old man whose wife had died of electrocution after plunging the electric carving knife into a sink full of water without unplugging it. There had been an almighty ‘POP!’, and for a few seconds the old lady had maintained a vice grip — a death grip so it turned out — on the thing, before collapsing in a blackened, blue-lipped heap on the kitchen floor.
The house was an awful place that smelled of cooking fat and forty years of smoke from cheap rollies, but Maggie could not afford anywhere else. She could not even afford this place, and that knowledge only made things worse. A combination of drugs, worry and a lack of food had all contributed in almost equal measure to turning her into what the old man sometimes unpoetically called ‘a stick’. Not that he was much of a looker himself, having only semi-soft brown molars left, top and bottom, and a body shape Maggie sometimes, perhaps more poetically thought of as ‘fifty bags of shit tied together in a bundle’.
The old man had gone out two months ago on a Sunday afternoon, and had never come back. No police came knocking, nothing appeared on the news, and so at first it seemed to Maggie to be a blessing of sorts. She had no more money to pay for rent, but still, when she pressed the switches the lights came on, and at six o’clock every evening the boiler spluttered and lurched into life and an hour later there was hot water.
But a baby? A baby needed so much more than working lights and the occasional hot bath. And so the unbearable thought of what she might do with it once it was born started to grow bigger, and bigger, until it became an almost physical presence, attaching itself to the walls and ceiling of the old man’s grimey living room like a giant, sticky brown bubble, ready to burst. And God only knows, Maggie thought, what’ll come of it when it does: marks against me; back on the street; fucking strangers, not even for money, but just because it stops them from killing me for one more night.
An orphanage, then, she thought. No, they’ll want details. So just the leave the thing. But can’t they do tests? The police know who I am. I’ll go to prison. What are the meals like there?
At ten o’clock on a Friday evening, as Maggie stirred oats into a saucepan of simmering water, she was buckled by a single, twisting contraction which seemed to wring out her insides like a cloth. This was followed by a sensation of wetness between her legs, and two warm streams, which trickled down the insides of both thighs. After that the contractions came in irregular pulses, a white-hot fist reaching in and wrenching at whatever it could find. It felt to her as though some great hulking wrestler had trapped her in a bear hug around the waist and was now squeezing tighter and tighter. Her belly turned rock hard. She backed away from the stove and doubled over, kicked the bin and flinched as empty bottles and cans clattered onto the linoleum. An ambulance. No, she thought, they can’t see inside the house. They can’t ask questions. How far was it to Queen Mary’s? Three quarters of a mile, maybe less. She could make it. And so she left, grabbing on her way out an almost useless polyester trench coat.
There were no Halloween pumpkins around here, no sweet smells of woodsmoke, no jovial banter from trendy bars and market stalls. There was only cold here, and traffic noise, and her breath, which came out as vapour in short, laboured puffs. Most of the time she staggered, hunched over with her hands cupped underneath the tight, bulging, raging rock that was her belly and uterus. She saw nobody but a couple of pre-teen boys in tracksuits, who watched her silently, offering no assistance.
At the entrance to A&E, Maggie was received by a large Kenyan nurse, who could easily have sheltered both Maggie and her soon-to-be-born baby in a single corner of her own uterus.
‘Help,’ Maggie croaked.
If there were questions asked, she did not remember them. A cold sweat had broken out over her entire body, even though somewhere between collapsing into the nurse and being wheeled into a private room, the useless trench coat had been removed.
At four minutes past midnight, a nurse placed a pink, golden-haired baby girl in Maggie’s arms. They had wrapped her in a white cotton blanket so that only her face showed. Are you what was inside of me? Maggie wondered. She looked at her own reflection in the curved steel of a nearby drip stand, then at her own pallid, veined skin, and found it impossible to believe that something so untainted and healthy could have grown inside of her.
‘I can’t keep you, baby,’ Maggie said. She ran a thumb over one of the baby girl’s cheeks and found it to be buttery soft.
An hour later when a nurse came by to check on the pair, Maggie pretended to be asleep. She allowed baby to be lifted from her chest and carefully lowered into a nearby cot. In the past Maggie had hated herself for this kind of irrational behaviour. These paranoid thoughts, she knew, could do more harm than good, but now they were... normal?
In the morning they brought her breakfast and tried to ask some more questions, basic things: did she know where the father was? Was there was anybody at home who could take care of them both? As a veteran addict, Maggie was unfortunately skilled at lying and diverting unwanted attention. Without much effort she managed to deflect their advances, and by the time a chicken dinner followed by cake and ice cream was served at six, she was hungry.
‘Is it okay if I have seconds?’ she asked. They told her that there were always plenty of leftovers, and that she could thirds, fourths and fifths if she really wanted.
The rest of the evening Maggie spent staring at threads of silky golden hair, as her baby girl quietly fed, then slept. Maggie had no bags, only the useless trench coat, which had been hung on the back of the door. At eleven-thirty, moving like a thief with a baby cradled in one arm, she took down the coat, used the hood to cover the girl’s head, and walked out.
The pre-teen boys in tracksuits were not there on the walk back, but several other people were out, and Maggie passed them all, head down.
That the old man might have come back never crossed her mind as she pushed her key into the slot and stepped inside, a brand new baby human in her arms. She reeled, stepped back. An acrid, metallic smell had taken over the house, replacing the cooking fat and cigarette smoke. The oats, she had left them cooking. At some point the hob had faltered and shut off, but what was left was a scorched pan with a blackened disk at the bottom. She grabbed the handle and it came off in her hand, then she turned around and stepped on an empty soup can. The noise woke up the baby and she began to cry. Maggie swayed her, made cooing sounds and laid the trench coat on the countertop. ‘I can’t keep you,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do but I can’t keep you.’
There was nothing for the baby there; no cot, no clothes, nothing to wipe her with, no food other than what Maggie could make herself, and how long she could keep that up she had no idea. They slept together on Maggie’s single bed, the smell of metal, burnt oats and plastic sticking to their nostrils. They slept, mother spooned around baby until just after three, when Maggie was awoken by the distant call of the rag-and-bone man.
She knew that it was him, consciously or not she knew that it was him, and that she had summoned him. When he was living, the rag-and-bone man would collect what others left behind whenever he happened to pass by, but now he could be summoned by those with something of value to offer. He goes where people are in the most desperate of need.
His call was a simple one. It went, ‘Raaaaaaag-booooooone… Raaaaaaag-booooooone...’ It was faint, and seemed to come from some impossibly far away place, from somewhere beyond the city, from beyond this world. It seemed to come in on a stream of air too cold and dead to be breathable by anyone living. It was the air that escaped from the lungs and tissues of the dead, and it carried the rag-and-bone man’s call across the night, to Maggie Lee.
‘Not tonight,’ Maggie said, curling into a tighter ball around her sleeping baby. ‘Not tonight.’
‘Raaaaaaag-Booooooone.’ With every invitation the rag-and-bone man came closer.
‘Raaaaaaag-Booooooone.’ He had turned the corner onto her street. She pictured him out there, walking in front of his horse-drawn cart, a macabre collection of dead children’s toys, broken down appliances, old clothes and bits of scrap wood and metal, piled high on the back and loosely covered with some horrible, parasite-infested tarp. The clop-clop of horseshoes on the road outside, right below her window, then silence.
‘No,’ she said, ‘not tonight. Not tonight.’ He would not enter, she knew that. The rag-and-bone man is a scavenger. She must leave the house and hand over the valuable thing. ‘Not tonight,’ she said again, more forcefully this time.
A pause, then the moving away of horseshoes and cries of ‘Rag’ and ‘Bone’ that faded slowly back into nothing.
The following three days were an exercise in exhausting, nerve-shredding fear and panic. As if aware of her impoverished new surroundings, the baby had begun to cry almost non-stop, feeding only when she became so tired that her head lolled back and she turned white instead of her usual flushed and healthy pink. The old man was never coming back, that much Maggie was sure of, but what about the police? The council? Every night the rag-and-bone man passed by, walking out of his world, into this one, then out again empty-handed. Maggie wondered fretfully how much longer he would wait before he stopped coming altogether and she missed her chance. Missed your chance, she thought. What a disgusting way to put it.
It was on the fifth night, during the pitch dark hour of three o’clock on All Hallows’ Eve, that Maggie rose from her bed, a golden-haired baby still wrapped in the Queen Mary’s white blanket, pressed gently to her chest. She moved slowly down the stairs, her upper body tight to minimise any movement that might wake up the baby.
His horse was huge and black, with leather blinkers over its sunken, cataracted eyes. One of its front legs was missing, and had been replaced with a cobbled together approximation made from old bits of wood and rusted nails. Maggie looked to see where the thing attached, and was horrified to see that it appeared to have simply been rammed into whatever decaying, dessicated flesh there was left at the stump. The rag-and-bone man said nothing as she approached, but instead turned and flipped up a corner of his tarp.
Maggie gripped the baby tighter and took a step back as he turned around again. His eyes, too, were covered with thick, milky cataracts. His skin was an unmistakably dead blue-white colour, and wrinkled, as though he had been soaking in warm vinegar. The fingers which protruded from his gloves were either frostbitten and decayed, or completely withered to painful-looking bones.
Normally, the rag-and-bone man was unmoved by his finds, interested only in what the raw materials might fetch, but the sight of Maggie’s baby, sleeping and swaddled in her blanket, excited him. He let loose a smile, flashing a tongue that looked like a piece of raw and bloodied liver. He ran a few fingers through the baby’s hair. Maggie let her be taken.
‘What will happen to her?’ Maggie asked.
The rag-and-bone man did not answer, he only climbed onto his cart, her baby clutched in one arm. He tugged on a rein and the horse clop-clopped, began to move away, out of this world and back into his.
‘What will you do with her?’ Maggie barked. ‘What will you do with my baby?’ She willed herself to stop, because she already knew. The bones were too soft to make handles or toys, but sometimes, they melted down the fat to make soap.
When I was a kid, there really was a rag-and-bone man who would show up on our street every now and then, looking for anything the local residents were throwing out. Usually it was old chairs and toys, and sometimes the odd microwave or fridge. He had a cart that was pulled by a horse, and when you heard him start to announce his arrival — just like in the story — it seemed to take him forever to arrive. I don’t think he ever took children, though. If he had, my mum would’ve offered me up the first chance she got.
There aren’t many of them around these days, which is a relief in a way, because if you think getting stuck behind a bin lorry is annoying, try getting stuck behind a rag-and-bone man.