Tonight I want to celebrate the passing of our dear friend, Jock, who died this day three years ago. He was a Scottish Presbyterian, and dying on the Twelfth was his way of expressing his opinion on loyalists everywhere.
Here he is, reading another Bock story.
Previously Jock Reads a Fairytale
I haven’t seen him yet, but sometimes I have two shadows. I feel him moving around downstairs among the draped furniture and the cardboard boxes, and sometimes I imagine him easing back a curtain to leer at people in the street. Perhaps he’s watching me now through some crack in this room, some weakness in the one place where he hasn’t been yet with his dry whispers. Who can tell? I can’t be sure of anything.
I keep jumping as I write this, even though I know it’s just the old house groaning in its sleep. Night-music. Until a few days ago, I was using the whole house except, of course, those places we don’t like to talk about. All these years since you left, I was careful to sleep by day and use the nights for listening. I keep a fold in the rug on the landing and I check it every morning to see if it’s been flattened. Nothing happened for such a long time, I’d started to think maybe things were getting better, maybe he’d gone away. As if he would. Last Tuesday, the third landing was cold again. I thought it was just in my head till I noticed that my fold in the rug was gone again, and then I knew he was back. Not alone anymore. Again. I think he might be outside the door by now, or at the very least only one flight down and he must know I’m in here. But he’s strange like that: if I do nothing he might leave me alone for a long time. That’s why I have everything I need close to hand: it saves moving around and making noise. I often wonder if he forgets me when I’m quiet or if he just wants to keep me on edge. Who can tell?
Lying here alone – almost alone – in the dark, I can think what I wouldn’t say out loud. You know what I’m talking about. Remember how we used to play down there, before we knew anything? Before brick walls and small dead things? One special thing, dead and small under a flagstone. Of course you do. The day we levered out the first brick, then another, and spied into a place with a vaulted roof. Stalactites! Remember? The torchlight made them green and they had little drops of water hanging down. It echoed – can you remember? You threw a stone and it echoed. Other things in there too: boxes, old crooked things thrown away. Even then we must have known it was a mistake because we pushed the bricks back as fast as we could and later, we got some sand, some cement, plastered it all back, never said a word to anyone. Not even to each other. All those glances for weeks after, silent questions, but nobody mentioned the wall and we thought it was strange. But not now.
Fear was our life-blood. After a while, we started to creep down there again, getting braver all the time. Finding the thing under the stone floor was an accident. It’s not as if we knew where to look. Just messing about with a rusty old pipe, the way kids do, we moved a loose stone and – I’ll never forget this – in the rammed earth was a small . . . thing. Well, what else would you call it? Just bones. Not really a dog. Not a lizard. Not anything really that you’d recognise – just a thing under a stone. Dead. Of course, being who you are, you wanted to take it up and we had a big fight about that. Leave it, I said, just leave it alone! But of course, we were both wrong – the damage was already done.
We probably knew we’d started something because, after that, we kept vigil. We didn’t call it that: vigil. We didn’t even mention it, but all the same, that’s what happened: we watched. There were signs too, small clues that anyone but a child would miss. We saw the loose mortar. We saw it: the brick slightly out of place. Then, much later, the cold on the third landing and things not where they were left. It got worse: the mumbling, the grunting, creaking on the stairs and, at last, knowing for sure that if you turned around now, he’d be there.
It’s hard to know now which of us first said that word.
No. Never It.
I never dared turn around. We couldn’t go to bed for fear of a dream. Couldn’t get up early for terror of meeting something in the silent house. If we had to go down at all – down there, I mean – it was at a run, all lights blazing and under protest. We never passed the door if we could avoid it.
Something I often wondered: when do you think the others started to feel it? Was it about the time of the accident or did it come later? It’s hard to be certain now, looking back so far, but I know this: they’d have been alright if they hadn’t guessed. I think maybe they knew from the start. Maybe, for all I know, it began the day they moved in, before we were even born. Things happening. Little things you might write off as nothing at all, if you didn’t know better. Now and then there was talk of happy times but I could never imagine what that meant and, to be honest, I still can’t.
I know we stayed by them right to the end. We did that much at least, but the truth is, we have nothing to be proud of. You must have noticed it too, the way they looked at us. As if staying on was some kind of confession, and let’s be straight about it: they were right. They saw through us and then they faded away, leaving you and me on our own, on the way down.
Why should both of us keep watch?, you said. Not for long, you said, maybe a month. Maybe two, just to be sure. We’d pack what we wanted, leave what we had no use for, and you’d go on ahead, send word back when everything was ready. Why did I agree to that? Was my guilt stronger than yours? I don’t know. By the time you left, all the stuff was in cardboard boxes, room by room, except the few things I’d need to get me through, and I held the street door open for you. For you and your suitcases. Won’t be long now, you said, and shook my hand – something you never did. So, for sixteen years I sat in this house, listening, setting my little traps, watching for small things out of place and growing hopeful. Until a fold, gone from a rug, reminded me.
No options left after that. Time for facing up. Forget draped furniture, forget useless things in cardboard. Forget, even, two peaceful rooms on the top floor. At last, it was time for me to turn around.
I brought a trowel, a rope, two lamps because no power comes to this house anymore. Nothing comes to this house. The door made no sound, but as I went down where I hadn’t been for so long, the stairs shook under me. One step was missing and I almost fell. The hook was still there, still strong when I tested the rope on it and made a knot. I checked the coil again, making sure there was enough to reach and maybe a little beyond. Then, with the other end around my waist, I stepped into the soft fear of childhood.
There was no sound but the seeping of water through the vaulted roof, as it has always done. Above me, in the street, people would be on their way, unaware of this below, and that scared me more than anything else. Even more than the ancient violence here: bricks, shattered from our wall; a small bony thing strewn in the shadows; the smell of him in the stones.
I put one lamp inside the archway. It fell and clattered on stone, but stayed lit and nothing happened. When I was sure there was no movement in the vaults, I went back for the plaster and, brick on brick, I rebuilt our barricade but still there was no sound except my breath and the water dripping. When all sign was gone of light from the walled-in lamp, I stopped and it was then that I began to see. My spare torch woke shadows all around me and I realised that there can be no shadow without light. Nearly too late I remembered the bones and I began to think – surely now he knows. Fear oozing from the roof, sticking to my shirt. The rope, my lifeline: would it still lead back to the doorway? Where would my rope lead? Would this rope lead me to sanctuary, or to some other place entirely?
Leave now, is what my fear said. Get out. Don’t wait. Get out now!
I fell against something old, something rusty and painful, but I didn’t shout. I bundled the tiny bones into the hole, heaved the flagstone into place and the room started pulsing. In, out, as if it was some dirty damp tunnel or else huge, a stone forest where I was lost and something smelled me. I heard the spatter of wet mortar falling and as I fumbled to close the hole in the floor the lamp fell and went out. Shaking it, cursing, with no time to finish, I had to get out now before a light came through brickwork from the wrong side. Stumbling through childhood fragments, hauling on the lifeline, climbing arm over arm across the floor there was no time for anything now but struggling with a knot and falling back against a door.
So I find myself in my present state, one step ahead of staring all that in the face. I know I can’t stay in here forever. I know that. Another hour, maybe three or four, I’ll make a break for it. When it’s a bit brighter, I’ll step outside this last safe room, edge down the stairs past a cold landing and, if I keep my head, I’ll be in with a good chance.