The Alarming Palsy of James Orr

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr

by Tom Lee
The Alarming Palsy of James Orr

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr

by Tom Lee



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A Kafkaesque and darkly humorous “suburban gothic” that tracks the unraveling of man’s body, mind, and life.
James Orr—husband, father, reliable employee and all-around model citizen—awakes one morning to find half his face paralyzed.
Waiting for the affliction to pass, he stops going to work and wanders his idyllic estate, with its woodland, uniform streets and perfectly manicured lawns. But there are cracks in the veneer. And as his orderly existence begins to unravel, it appears that James may not be the man he thought he was.
A deeply unsettling story of creeping horror that consistently confounds expectations, The Alarming Palsy of James Orr introduces a writer of extraordinary and disturbing talents.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641290050
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/22/2019
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: eBook
Pages: 212
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Tom Lee's fiction and personal essays have appeared in The Sunday Times, Esquire, Prospect, The Dublin Review, and Zoetrope, among others. He is also the author of Greenfly, a collection of short fiction. His work has been shortlisted for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award and longlisted for the Notting Hill Essay Prize. He teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
When James Orr woke up, a little later than usual, he had the sense that there was something not quite right, some indefinable shift in the normal order of things, but it was not until he bumped into his wife on the landing—James had been sleeping in the spare room for several weeks—that he had a clue as to what it might be.
     “Oh!” said Sarah Orr, and put her hand to her mouth in genuine alarm.
      James continued to the bathroom and there, in the mirror, he saw the cause of her dismay—and such dismay did not seem unreasonable.
      The left-hand side of James’s face had collapsed, a balloon with the air gone out of it, a melted waxwork. The cheek was hollow and the skin hung in a bulge over the side of his jaw, a grotesque one-sided jowl. The side of his mouth had fallen, too, the pale line of his lips angling sharply downwards. Where the bottom of the eyelid had pulled down, the full white of the eye was exposed, as well as its veiny roots. The skin itself was different. Yellowed, bloodless, and a little shiny.
      James tried to smile. Only the right-hand side responded. The right eye narrowed, the skin creased into folds, the corner of the mouth hoisted itself upward and pulled his lips back over his teeth. The left side remained slumped, unmoved. The effect, a forced and crooked grin, the teeth bared on one side, was appalling.
      Sarah stood next to him, staring at his reflection in the mirror.
      “My god, James, what is it? Have you had a stroke?” She laughed, nervously. “I’m sorry—you just look so . . . awful.”
      James turned on the tap, splashed his face with water and then looked again. He put his hand to his face and it was like touching someone else. He pushed the left side up so that it was level with the right but it was not convincing, and when he let go, it dropped slackly back down.
      “It won’t move,” said James. The words came out thickly, caught in his half-closed mouth. “It’s paralysed.”
      And yet it was not simply this, the sight of the paralysed features themselves, that was so unsettling, it was the discord between right and left. If both sides hung like this, then perhaps, at least when his face was at rest, he would only resemble a much older man—himself thirty or forty years from now. As it was, it gave the impression of two different faces, two different people, welded savagely together.
      “Don’t come downstairs,” said Sarah. She had recovered herself. James recognised the tone—practical, coping, in charge—most often employed when there was some kind of drama involving the children, a sound that he usually found reassuring. “I’m going to sort out the kids.”
      “Okay,” murmured James, out of the side of his mouth.
      He turned back to the mirror. The only thing on the left-hand side of his face that moved was his eye. But when he blinked, only the right eye closed. The left stared unrelentingly back at him. Its gaze seemed agitated, intense, almost accusatory, as if all the expressiveness of that immobilised side of his face was now concentrated there. From downstairs, he heard the everyday noises of his wife and children having breakfast, getting ready to go out, sounds that suddenly seemed full of pathos, or at least a kind of anticipated pathos. The eye had a yellow, filmy look to it, almost as if it were sheathed in something else. The edges of the cornea were reddening. It felt dry and was already a little sore.
Chapter 2
The previous evening James had been to a neighbour’s house for a meeting of the New Glades Estate
Residents’ Committee, of which, for the last eight months, he had been the chair.
      They had run rapidly through the agenda: the long-awaited resurfacing of the estate road, problems with fly-tippers, problems with the gardening contractors for the shared land, arrangements for the summer party. There was some discussion about a resident who was having work done and who had left an overflowing skip in the street for weeks without it being picked up. James agreed that he would have a discreet word. William, a pedantic retiree whose two pairs of glasses hung in tangles around his neck, and who acted as the committee’s neighbourhood watch officer, reported that there had been two further incidents of “The Anti-Social Behaviour.”
      The Anti-Social Behaviour was a euphemism for the sporadic discovery of teenage couples, assumed to be from the sprawling local authority estate half a mile away, in cars parked up at the far dead end of the estate road, by the entrance to the woods. Discussion of the problem was a favourite of the committee—in need of a vicarious thrill, Sarah had suggested to James—and several of them were very worked up about it. James had never witnessed it himself, although he had seen the beer cans, cigarette butts and fast-food wrappers that were sometimes left behind. Even if all the reports were accurate, which he doubted, he did not see that a huge amount of harm was being done.
      “I have fed back to the police,” said William, looking up from his notes and replacing one pair of glasses with another, “and they have assured me they will increase the number of patrols in the area as a deterrent. If anyone has any other suggestions, please say so.”
      “There is a real danger,” said Vanessa, committee treasurer, “that the estate will get a reputation.” Her voice, pained, nasal and complaining, never failed to set James’s teeth on edge. As usual she was wearing too much of the gaudy, vaguely hippyish jewellery that he had heard she made in a studio at her house. “Then we will be overrun. It’s probably too late already.”
      James had not even wanted to be on the committee. With work and the kids he had enough on his plate already, but under pressure from his next-door neighbour, the incumbent chair, and with a view of himself as a good neighbour and a good citizen, he had agreed, assuming—not totally inaccurately as it turned out—that it would be a dispiriting assembly of time-wasters, busybodies, curtain-twitchers and NIMBYs. After each of the monthly meetings, James made Sarah laugh with impersonations of the other committee members who, in a discussion on whether to install a bike rack at the entrance to the adjacent woods, insisted earnestly and at great length on “maintaining the architectural integrity of the estate,” and who called for “heightened vigilance” following the sighting of an unidentified hooded man walking along the road after dark.
      After only a few months, the next-door neighbour had moved away and there seemed to be a tacit assumption that James would take over as chair. As he told Sarah at the time, he should have seen it coming. Since then, however, he felt he had run a pretty tight ship. The first thing he did was to establish a written constitution that clarified the committee’s role and responsibilities. From then on the meetings were short and efficient. He kept a lid on the other committee members’ tendency to digress and also tried to act as a corrective to the general air of parochialism and paranoia. At times this meant being rather abrupt, and initially this seemed to shock a couple of them, used to a more indulgent regime, but James was not doing this for fun, and soon enough he felt that most, if not all, of them came to appreciate his style. He ran meetings every day at work—he was a project manager at a medium-sized consultancy firm in town—and he sensed some deference to this professional background, as well as to his relative youth and energy.
      Already James felt he had earned some credit, and passed a little test in his own mind, when, over the summer, a group of Travellers had held a series of loud parties in the woods. In recent years this had become an annual event, viewed apocalyptically by many of the residents, and along with the noise, the battered cars parked everywhere and rubbish strewn all over the place, there had been bad feeling that had threatened to spill over into something worse. James had urged a light touch, and had spoken with the apparent leader of the group, a spectacularly tattooed and frankly terrifying-looking matriarch, and when they moved on after only a few days, the woods were spotless.
      James turned to Vanessa.
      “Well, we must to try to keep things . . .” he began, but he was interrupted.
      “I could rig up a few explosive devices? Booby traps?”
      This was Kit, a new resident. He had moved in just before Christmas, a few doors down from the Orrs, and joined the committee soon afterwards. He was about James’s age, lived alone, and was constantly at work renovating his house. Over the past few months, as James came and went from work, and even when it was very cold, he had watched Kit sand down and repaint the external woodwork, re-lay the steps up to the front door and dig out the garden. On the days when he was not outside, the sounds of hammering, sanding and drilling came from within the house. James wondered what Kit did which allowed him to rarely—if ever, as far as James could tell—go out to work, and yet afford the house and the expensive-looking Audi that was parked outside. He meant the explosives as a joke, no doubt, but perhaps he did know how to do something like that, James thought.
      “I wouldn’t mind,” said Vanessa, coyly, and the rest of the committee laughed. “But I would settle for some CCTV cameras.”
      “As I was about to say,” said James, before Vanessa could go any further, “we have to keep things in perspective. For now, I suggest we continue to monitor the situation. If there’s nothing else, then let’s wrap this up.”
      As usual, the meeting dissolved into general talk and drinks. James often stayed just for one, out of politeness to whoever had been hosting that evening, but on this occasion he was tired and decided to go straight home. Sarah was already in bed when he got in, presumably asleep, so he watched the news for a few minutes and then went up to the spare room.

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