Despite the overhead florescent lighting, the banking foyer was dim. A storm threatened and rumbled in the air. The queue was restless. People shuffled, moving from foot to foot with impatience. Sniffing and shaking umbrellas heavy with rain drops while they waited. No one spoke. No one made eye contact. Everyone concentrated on the cashier’s desk, trying to calculate how much longer they would need to wait. A brief flash of white lightning cut through the clouds. There was the sense of electricity crackling through the foyer, making the queue twitch with static. No one noticed that the cameras, dotted here and there, now showed blank, dead screens.
A small girl, bored, slumped to the floor in a puddle of raincoat and wellingtons. Holding her rag doll, she leant into her mother’s legs for support. She seemed unaware of the charged atmosphere. Instead, she held imaginary conversations with the doll in her head. The large antique clock on the wall ponderously tick-tocked. At precisely twelve, the hammer inside the mechanism struck and the hour chimes rang out. In that moment, the imposing entrance doors opened.
Three men stood framed by oak and brass. They wore black t-shirts, short-sleeved despite the heavy storm that had orchestrated their entrance. In silence, they moved forward, the hollow sound of their boots echoing across the marble floor. Tick-Tock, their footsteps following the movement of the clock. As they came closer to the queue, one moved to the left and one to the right. The queue at first seemed oblivious to the new arrivals. Until one woman gasped with a small scream before she covered her mouth, her eyes widening with shock as she realised the men were armed.
Without speaking, the man to left and the man to the right gestured, like conductors using their guns as batons, that the queue should move towards the walls. The woman with the child grabbed at a small arm, hauling her upright and dragging her in the direction the guns indicated. The rag doll lay abandoned. Her small face puckered slightly. One young man carrying an overfilled rucksack staggered into a carousel of brightly coloured leaflets. It crashed to the floor. Oddly, it appeared to make no sound as the metal stand hit the cold stone. The leaflets scattered across the floor like a deck of cards, their titles of savings and mortgages and pensions merged into nonsense. Tick-Tock.
Most stood with their backs to the wall, shaking, weeping, some prayed. The woman with the child partially faced into the wall, trying to shield her from whatever might come. The girl felt suffocated; her face pressed against her mother’s damp coat, yet instinctively she stayed silent and still. A low murmur of fear hung in the room like a faint mist. Neither of the men with guns said anything. They simply stood, feet apart, both hands cradling their guns. The blackness of their clothes sucked the colour from a day that was already leaden.
Once the central area was clear, their leader moved forward towards the cashier’s desk. Only an elderly man remained where he was, deaf to the activity behind him. Just as the leader came close, a sixth sense made him turn. His rheumy eyes did not take in the gun. Smartly dressed in a wool blazer, his regimental tie knotted neatly, he jabbed his folded umbrella at the man’s chest, ‘wait your turn young man’. Squinting at him, he remembered the war and the men whom he had fought with and those who had died.
The leader paused as though a small bug had crossed his path. He showed no irritation toward the angry, shrivelled face decorated with liver spots. He simply looked down at the umbrella pressed against his torso. Casually, he lifted his gun, placing the barrel in the centre of the old man’s forehead. He squeezed the trigger. Tick-Tock.
There was a pause before the geriatric frame, which held the man together, slowly crumpled and collapsed. His umbrella dropped to the floor and rolled for a few paces before coming to rest. The man in the black t-shirt looked down at the heap of old bones at his feet, the blood pooling around the sparse, hairless scalp. With a barely perceivable nod to one of his companions, he continued toward the desk. The man to the left, holding his gun in position, used his steel capped boot as a makeshift broom. Without the need of much force, he pushed the bundle of memories, of POW camps and medals, of lovers and losses, grandchildren and arthritis against the wall.
A hush descended on the room; the sound of the gunshot reverberated in the ears of the spectators. Enough of a shock for those weeping to cease and others to close their eyes more tightly and silently mouth their words of despair and hope. The mother with the child moved her body more tightly around her daughter, trying to make her invisible. No one looked at the pool of blood or at its smeared path that led to the body. Outside, the rain continued, the deluge pounding the pavements, washing away the greasy grime of the roads.
The leader headed towards the young woman sat centrally in the line of desks. She wore the standard bank uniform of a crisp white blouse with a shiny plastic name tag pinned just above her left breast. A red striped cravat was tied jauntily at her throat. Although aware of colleagues on either side, she stayed frozen in her place. The fear that coursed through her was so great she felt her limbs weighed down by the terror of what was happening. Her eyes met his dark, expressionless stare. Within the pools of his eyes, she could see her fate and she felt her bowels loosen.
There was no opportunity to think rationally. No opportunity to press the panic button. In slow motion, she watched him raise his gun and press it, like a kiss, to the security screen. At that point, he smiled and squeezed the trigger for a second time. The energy of the bullet radiated through the glass, causing it to shatter and send a storm of shards into the bodies of her colleagues. A small, perfect arrow of glass, along with the bullet, embedded itself in the centre of her face. It imploded, obliterating her features, soaking her blouse with blood. Her colleagues sat in paralyzed shock, except for one who leant sideways and vomited before fainting. Tick-Tock and then the clock stopped.
He felt the hairs on the back of his neck lift slightly as though someone standing very close had sighed. The light subtlety changed. He looked up at the high windows. Although the slate clouds still scudded across the dark sky, small fragments of sunlight peered and peeked into the room. Spotlighting blood and bones. He was unaware that the patches of light began to merge and coalesce, forming one entity. The child was watching. Her mouth dropped open and then she turned her face fully into her mother’s skirt, eyes now screwed tightly closed.
There was the sensation that someone was softly stroking his arm, delicate fingers slowly caressing him, then trailing down his spine. He turned. She was small with startling clear eyes. The light caught her blond hair, making him think of saints and halos. Her dress, pure white cotton, clung to her, highlighting her delicate bones, so fragile they looked like they would break in a breeze.
Dust motes shivered and danced in the light. He blinked and found himself, not by the cashier’s desk but in the centre of the room. She stood opposite, glowing in a single shaft of light. Opening her arms wide, she moved towards him as though to capture him in an embrace. Instead, they rotated, in a slow, dreamy waltz. His arms remained at his side, useless and heavy, barely able to grip his gun. He felt faintly dizzy as they twisted around, his skin hot and flushed. Inside the vortex, he was aware of nothing but his own heartbeat and the intense stare which imprisoned him. Around him, everything was black and white and grey. Except her eyes. The clarity pierced him, holding him fast.
The man on the left and the man on the right watched them. Both men felt the heat coursing along their arms at the same time. Their guns smouldered and pulsated with heat. The man on the left screamed first, followed by the man on the right. Frantically, they tried to release their grip on the guns that were slowly welding themselves into their flesh. Eventually, the guns fell to the floor. Lifting their hands, they found scorch marks had burned into them like a tattoo. As the white heat became more intense, the guns dissolved, giving off a faint smell of acrid smoke as they evaporated.
The hostages remained completely silent and the dance partners continued to orbit each other. They watched as she lifted her arms higher as though encouraging musicians towards the finale.
Leaning into him, her hand reached forward and caressed his lips. The soft skin of her fingers lightly smoothing his face, tracing the curve of his mouth, finding the history of his life in the pockmarked scars of youth. Her hand moved downwards towards the gun. She stroked the metal and although it was separate from him, he could feel her as she moved her fingers slowly up the barrel, still warm from the executions.
When she removed her hand, he felt the sense of loss and cold withdrawal. With his eyes on her face, he watched her clasp both hands together before she reached forward, bringing his head to lie briefly against her breasts. He neither sensed nor heard a heartbeat. Still, his arms hung useless and redundant by his side. Still his hand gripped the gun.
The beat of the waltz quickened and climbed towards the climax. As they turned, she took each of his hands in her own and crossed them over his chest with the gun nestling under his chin. It was raw, hard, and unforgiving. Gently, her lips sort his and finally he closed his eyes to the whisper of a kiss. She laid her cheek against him and her hands joined his as though in prayer. She sighed again. He felt her smile and, without knowing how or why, he pulled the trigger.
From the exit wound, blood and matter bloomed and hung momentarily as a deep red cloud above them. The fading sunlight passed over. Droplets broke away transforming into sweet-scented rose petals. They hung in the air for a heartbeat. Then drifted downwards as soft and light as confetti, slowly fragmenting into grey ash and then dissolving before they could reach the floor. He felt his body arch and fracture, fissures running though his skin, capillaries and veins finding release from his flesh. As his body liquefied, she held him tight.
They stopped rotating and became still. The last movement completed. Holding him, they merged into one, lovers in the final throes of passion. The white of her dress, the black of his t-shirt fading and mingling into grey. The last flash of sunlight lit up the foyer again, illuminating the cavernous room. It fell on the pool of liquid that once contained the woman in white and the man in black.
The spectators watched as the red liquid crystallized and then, as the stain slowly disappeared, the floor returned to a dull marble sheen. The dark clouds rolled lazily across the sky. Sharp pellets of rain once again pounded against the windows, lightning and thunder resumed their chorus. Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. The clock struck the quarter hour.
This story previously appeared in Instructions for Freezing and Other Stories (2020).
Edited by Marie Ginga
Carol comes from a Welsh background and works in sales. She consumes copious amounts of tea, the odd glass of Merlot and often finds herself in rooms wondering what she went there for.