The house sat on the edge of the estate, like a raised scar on skin, hidden behind trees and a high fence. You could strain to look over it, see the long grass and the outbuildings, how the trees cast long shadows over everything and in my fevered child’s mind, I imagined that you could walk on the wrong part and just disappear into the ground. Swallowed up too fast to scream and then you would imagine Mum going from frustration to anger to fear and back again. At that age, you don’t think of pain, or grief, the horrors and potential agonies of life are written in broad strokes rather than the subtle, horrible things that cling to you like dirt beneath your soul’s fingernails.
I found books and trying to make my own easier to spend time with than other children my age. I was always so frightened of saying the wrong thing, that I either said nothing or went overboard in wanting them to like me. It’s a curious observation, made at nine years old, that you couldn’t let people know you wanted them to like you. If you did, it put them off immediately.
Books never did that to me. It was one of those enforced occasions, where my mum made me go outside and wouldn’t let me take a book with me. There was Sean, Leanne and Barry, their lean, scabbed limbs seething with a boredom that would never end well for anyone stupid enough to go along with their hastily conceived solution to it. Sean, who took great delight in making me cry whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Truth Or Dare.
I always chose Dare. My truths were still stuck inside me, they would take many years of surgery to remove. Dares were not braver choices to make, but I had a sense of what I would give up to anyone. It’s the first thing you learn when you’re wounded for the first time.
So, because there wasn’t anywhere we could go where the dares would be ‘show me your genitals’ and it was too hot to go anywhere far, Sean looked behind me, grinned like a chimpanzee with a rock in it’s hand and me at his feet.
He dared me to bring something from the house.
My stomach turned into a cold knot of anguish, forced me to clench my buttocks together and swallow the swift bolt of nausea that shot upwards. I gave a damp burp, tried to pass it off as a cough and couldn’t quite do it. I nodded instead, and started to walk towards the fence.
The moments of courage that you summon up, they’re always for the most stupid, dangerous things. It’s a borrowed nobility but my legs stopped trembling and I used the wire fence that adjoined it to the house to push myself over.
It was somewhere between a fall and a jump, I got to my feet as quickly as I could and looked around.
A breeze moved the grass ahead of me, and the shadows of the trees moved. The leaves casting ripples of golden light onto the grass, like the lights on those fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. The alien way of things, that we see only in glimpses for fear that it would drive us mad.
There was a large shed. Over the beating of my heart, I walked towards it. The house was owned by Doctor Mainwaring. I never learned his first name, but it meant something because my mum would talk about it with Sean’s mum who lived next door. School bullies, you could escape by going home but when they lived next door, it was a blindfolded walk across a minefield.
Much like the pothole in the grass that twisted my ankle, made me fall over and splash my hand into something that had a thin, sharp stink to it. I cried out, strangled with how perfectly gross it was. My eyes were hot with tears but I wiped most of it off on the grass and got up. My ankle took my weight but it sent hot pinches of pain up my leg with each step. I tried not to sob about trying to climb out over the fence again.
I kept going. The shed smelled old, the peppery dust that you knew came as offshoots of things rotting in there. Flakes becoming dust, coating inside your nose and you taste it on your tongue with every swallow. You can spit and spit but it never comes out that taste, does it?
I had to bring back something. I pulled open the door.
The darkness in there had weight, substance. It looked like something that would not just disappear when light fell upon it, but would have to be dislodged. Pulled out like a splinter in the palm of your hand.
The stink of something’s scat, greasy and warm against your palm.
Which was when a pair of eyes, yellow like the paint they used on the roads, blinked at me and a voice began to speak inside my head. It spoke like it had always been there, but I had not been listening.
Some ideas shut you down in life. They get passed to you by your parents, your teachers, the careers counsellors who manage to hide their own failings by shutting down your dreams. It’s a patchwork of admonitions, repeated so often that you believe it when the truth is, and sometimes you learn it far too late, that life is about following a suggestion to the point that it shapes the rest of your life.
My thoughts expanded like a balloon, larger and more expansive than my excited attempts to tell stories, based on what I read in books. No, it showed me what could be, a possible life that was equal parts cartoon and movie trailer.
It took it all away and I struggled not to cry, how it had left me bereft in an instant. I could taste the sensation, felt the warmth of affection and wonder that would be mine to tell. Crowds of people, asking me questions and my arm cramped from signing my name over and over.
It asked me what I would be willing to trade for it.
Anything, I said. I didn’t have much, which is a sad thing that you carry as a child when you’re actually at a point where you see everything without filter or understanding of it. Whatever I had, I would have given it.
It asked me, once a year, to come and tell it a story.
It blinked again.
And you’ll give me, what I saw, just then?
There were other details. The oldest and most powerful bargains were the simplest. I come back and tell it a story and in return, it gives me something that I didn’t quite understand but wanted so desperately. I put my hand out and something dry but warm, a bundle of sticks that curled around my soft hand, touched once then removed.
My ankle had stopped hurting but with an idiot’s luck, brought on by a feeling of serenity, I walked out the front and around.
We both kept our promises.
You’ve seen the books in the stores, last year I went to my first premiere and watched the characters I had been trying to scratch out into some semblance of life. It was supposed to be the greatest moment of my life, but I was worrying about getting back to fucking Bradwell and trying to come up with another story.
It’s not there now. Fresh new houses sit there, and there’s no trace of it anymore. I still go, and I wait until roughly three o’clock in the morning. Sat there, hoping that a police car doesn’t stop and ask what I’m doing.
After all this time, I don’t even know myself why I still do it. Miles to go, and promises to keep, as Dylan Thomas said.
Actually, that’s not true. 1997. Less said about that the better, but you probably read about it. The public appearances. The insomnia. The hallucinations. The cancelled television deal.
One year missing it was quite enough, thank you.
I had come up with a variation on Baba Yaga. Using mythology was always a good, solid bet with the stories I told it. I got out of the car and walked into the carpark.
It said my name. I cleared my throat and began to speak, but it shuffled forward, tentacles covered in bark waving before it and said it had something to tell me this year.
A fact of natural history.
The shampoo ant, or genus Formicoxenus manages to reproduce in the nests of other ants, by licking itself constantly, and adopting the scent of the host ant, which is how they notionally identify one another.
Stories can be like that too, so can ideas.
Like what it would mean for a sacrifice to be a story, and a story to be a sacrifice, where the victim does all the hard work accruing value.
Like a dream realised and turned into a life.
One worth taking.
Or, in this case, replacing.
My senses shift. There’s no level of sensation equal to the bleak, unyielding horror of failing to see the twist before it happens.
Except for this.
I watch it walk away, wearing my face, getting into my car and driving off. Surprised that it knew how to do that, but the thought fades and I feel the loneliness begin to creep in. The sun is coming up, and I look down, see the looping outlines of chalk, primary colours bleached white or washed away, it showed a child at work in their own imagination, so deeply that they needed to make it real.
Perhaps, they would be willing to share a story or two.
Once a year would be fine.