The Stinker
by Colin Harvey
Let’s be honest. Tobias Knowlton was not the sort of person you’d
want to get stuck in a lift with. It’s not how he looked that was
the problem, though Tobias was no oil painting. Well, maybe a
particularly avant-garde oil painting by a former enfant terrible
approaching the end of an otherwise uninspired artistic career
looking to shock the art establishment with one ill-thought through
last-hurrah. Tobias was no more disagreeable to look at than most
overweight, bespectacled men in their early sixties tend to be, the
gingery hair protruding from his nostrils and the centimetre-wide
mole on his left cheek not withstanding.

No, the reason you wouldn’t want to get stuck in a lift with Tobias
Knowlton was simple and unambiguous. Tobias Knowlton smelt to
high heaven.

Tobias was fully cognisant of his problem. You don’t get to the
age of sixty-two without realising that your total lack of a social life
might have something to do with that smell of sulphurous four-day
herring that is constantly about your person. You don’t get to the age
of sixty-two without attributing your enduring inability to attract a
partner to anything other than the odour that is your single, faithful
companion. Indeed, you don’t get to the age of sixty-two without
thinking that the contorted expressions of disgust you elicit from
total strangers who make the mistake of coming within three feet
of your lumbering hulk, might in some way relate to that unvarying
stink that greets you in the morning and bids you adieu in the
evening. Which was why, if he could possibly avoid it, and despite
the strain it must invariably place on his heart, Tobias would always
take the stairs rather than risk the possibility of any excruciating
encounter in an elevator.

Tobias’s two-bedroom maisonette abounded with supposed cures,
purgatives and remedies. Bathroom and kitchen cupboards bulged
under the weight of manifold bottles and jars, while the second
bedroom looked much like the abode of a medieval apothecary.

The problem was one of diagnosis. Whereas the symptom was
clear – fetid, unwavering – the cause of the stench proved utterly
impossible to ascertain. The best efforts of numerous medical
practitioners had been unable to isolate from which part of Tobias’s
body the smell was emanating.

The obvious candidates had been ruled out when Tobias was a
young man. The smell didn’t seem to be associated with bad breath:
Tobias had always benefi ted from very good teeth, and regularly
attended dental appointments. His feet, too, were scrupulously well
cared for. Flatulence was discounted early on: disparate nutritionists
agreed that Tobias’s diet was well-balanced and healthy. Genital and
rectal hygiene were both excellent. Under-arm bodily odour was
no more a problem for Tobias than it is for most overweight men.
The doctors removed samples of tissue, saliva, blood, sweat, semen,
mucous, hair, urine and shit. Nothing came of any of it.

Non-traditional treatments proved no better in their ability to
assist Tobias. His own mother, a slim bird-like creature who smelled
of nothing more offensive than lavender, had encouraged Tobias to
try “alternative” treatments, since she herself believed devoutly in
the power of the distaff over mortal creatures. Consequently, Tobias
tried acupuncture, refl exology, light treatment, crystals, and even,
on one occasion, went so far as to attend an evangelical ceremony at
the local church. All to no avail. Sadly, Tobias’s mother died some
twenty-fi ve years earlier, never seeing her only son without tears in
her eyes, and seldom without a peg on her nose.

Talking of death. The news of Aunt Mae’s expiration arrived,
appropriately enough, on the fi rst of May. Since it was a bank
holiday, Tobias was home alone, scanning the internet for the latest
innovations in the world of stench amelioration, rather than marking
the teetering pile of GCSE course work on the chair behind him.
Suddenly the telephone rang and the machine beeped in response.

The caller addressed Tobias’s answer-machine in the kind of crisp
locution that would not disgrace a World Service announcer: “Tobias
Knowlton, my name is Somerset Shaw. We have never met, but you
may be aware of my existence, for I am your cousin. I have to inform
you that your Aunt Mae, whom you may also be aware was my
mother, has fi nally succumbed to the congenital heart defect that
was the bane of her life. I wish I could say she died peacefully in her
sleep, but alas she screamed the house down and caused several of
the neighbours to complain to the local constabulary. Ring me back,
if you would, to discuss disposal of the body.”

Tobias sat and blinked, clasping his hands together ruminatively.
It seemed the same congenital heart defect that had claimed the life
of his middle-aged mother years previously had now taken the life
of elderly Aunt Mae. Tobias refl ected with sadness on the curious
fact that the two sides of the family had not communicated since
around the time of his own birth; indeed he had never met either
Mae or her son Somerset. Suddenly he realised that with the death
of the last of that older generation his cousin had evidently seized
the opportunity for rapprochement between the two sides of the
family. In that moment Tobias decided that he, too, would do his
part to close the rift.

Aunt Mae’s funeral was a no-nonsense affair, although Tobias felt
the vicar’s account of Mae’s life to be vague. He was considering the
curiosity of this when he was aware of an imposing fi gure leaning
over him, a handkerchief clutched tightly to his mouth.

“I presume, from the stench, that you must be my cousin, Tobias.
Good day to you, sir.”
Tobias managed his composure effi ciently, and replied “Somerset,
I presume. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”
Somerset Shaw’s swirling grey eyes considered Tobias with
disparaging, almost surgical disinterest. He replied: “At least the
stench of death diminishes over time. I wish the same could be said
for your olfactory disorder.”

Tobias swallowed hard but nevertheless maintained eye contact.
“I am most certainly aware of my problem, sir. I promise you I have
taken every measure to try and counter it.”

“Every measure? I doubt that. Come to my late mother’s abode on
Sunday morn, and we will see if we cannot be of mutual benefi t to
one another. I believe you know the location.”

Tobias had indeed visited Aunt Mae’s residence once before in his
life. He had been eleven years old and discovered Aunt Mae’s address
in a pile of old letters. Despite the explicit warnings of his mother,
he had bicycled to the house at the fi rst available opportunity. His
mother, however, needn’t have worried: the wrought-iron gates,
the leering gargoyles and the towering, twisting oaks had been
enough to dissuade the youthful Tobias against making contact
with his mysterious aunt and her equally mysterious son. When the
curtain twitched, and an impassive, ashen-faced youth appeared at
the window, Tobias had quickly bicycled home again, putting all
thoughts of contact between him and his relatives to one side.

Now, some fi fty-one years later, Tobias Knowlton found himself
taking tea in the vast reception room of that same Gothic manor.
During Tobias’s long trek up the overgrown path to the imposing
front doors of the house, it had occurred to him that Aunt Mae’s death
throes must have been vociferous indeed to offend the neighbours,
since the house was so distant from all other habitation.

Somerset proceeded to pour tea into china cups with cool
deliberation, before cutting the delicately presented Battenberg into
precise sections and passing Tobias a piece. Tobias ate distractedly,
gazing at the multitude of Gothic objets d’art
drawn from around
the globe. The room contained numerous stuffed creatures, an array
of scythes, swords and pikes, and what looked for all the world like
the caged body of a lynched highwayman.

“Your mother had unusual taste,” Tobias eventually observed,
employing due tact.
It was quickly becoming apparent, however, that diplomacy was
not a regular feature of his cousin’s discourse.
“This stink you emit,” said Somerset, periodically spraying some
kind of perfumed scent in Tobias’s direction, “what causes it?”
“As I said in the church, I have no idea. Nor does any individual or
group of individuals I have consulted on the matter.” He attempted
a nervous smile at this point, “You, however, seemed to indicate
that you might have a solution.”

“Your mother wasn’t overweight. Nor was mine. Nor am I.”
“True, sir.”
“Then why, dear cousin, do you suppose that you’re so very, very

fat?” At this Somerset permitted himself a pencil-thin smile. “Are
you eating for two?”

“Diet is not the problem, I assure you, my dear cousin,” replied
Tobias levelly. “Were that it was.”
“What do you know of my mother’s relationship with yours?”
“That as children they were thick as thieves. But that shortly

around the time of my birth something occurred, and they never
spoke again.” Tobias gazed at his interlocutor. “Your mother did not
even come to my mother’s funeral. And neither did you.”

“In their youth, our mothers were Wiccan. Do you know what
that means?”
“I…” At this Tobias’s voice trailed off. He felt a sudden twinge in
his lower intestine. “Witches.”
“Witches, that’s right, my cousin,” confi rmed Somerset. “Very
good ones, in fact. They conjured all manner of visitations.”
“Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” Beads of sweat had
formed upon Tobias’s upper lip.
Somerset had stood now and was pacing about the room. “One
such visitation was a creature of considerable majesty in the realm
of darkness.”

“I really don’t believe in – ”
“Such beings need us humans, poor dear cousin. They need our…”

For once, Somerset seemed bereft of language. “Our lust for life,” he
announced fi nally. “Without it, their young cannot survive. They
need hosts, Tobias. Like yourself.”

“What’re you talking about?” spluttered Tobias, dropping his
slice of Battenberg and clutching at the tie he had inadvisably worn
for the occasion.

“The creature of darkness conjured by our mothers needed
somewhere to store his newborn until it was fully grown. A host
that would nurture his own child until maturity. At fi rst, both of
our mothers refused, of course. But the Prince – for he was of noble
blood – was persistent.”

“My mother would never – !” exclaimed Tobias.
“No, indeed. Your mother wouldn’t. But mine, however… Well,

her virtues were less impeachable. All it took was a lock of your
mother’s hair, and hey presto! The Prince was able to plant a foetus
within a foetus, if you take my meaning.”

Tobias Knowlton felt something stirring in his stomach. “What’re
you talking about?” he gasped.
“In return, the Prince gave my mother this Gothic mansion house
in which to raise me. The Prince doubled her life span, making sure
the congenital heart defect that has cursed our family did not trouble
her until she was an elderly personage. Meanwhile, you grew, and
the creature within you grew.”

Tobias could feel a great pressure on his abdomen. He clutched
the sides of his armchair until the fabric began to rip.
“Unfortunately, a satanic imp is a fl atulent creature to have curled
around your intestine. The smell, as you know, is not pleasant. But
you have done a great service to the Prince. And now my mother has
gone, I must do my service to the Prince’s offspring.”

By this stage Somerset was wielding the cake knife. “I had
envisioned that this would need to be an assisted birth. But I see I
was mistaken.”

With that, Tobias looked down at his bulging chest and felt the
crack of his own ribs.
“I told you,” said Somerset reassuringly, as Tobias Knowlton
began to split in twain. “The stench of death diminishes over time.
Rejoice, dear cousin. You’re cured.”


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