3,189 words – approx. 11 minutes
The house, or what remains of it, stands empty over the park. Its position on a slight hill gives it a vantage point from which to survey the unkept grass and the thin winding path below. There have been people in the park today: old and young, some with dogs on thick red leads, others pushing children in covered prams as droplets race each other down plastic visors.
Among the red-bricked terraces that line the surrounding streets the house’s solitude seems out of place. It shares no walls, hears no arguments, feels no shudders as doors slam in anger. No-one really knows who it belongs to, or where its grounds begin and end. If it has an owner, they are content to let it sit unclaimed. Age and stones thrown from boredom have pocked its face, but the fence of trees has shielded it from the worst of the weather. Tonight the dark drapes it in a bruised shawl. Even in this blackness the windows and door look darker than the rest of the house, hollowed, as if it is in mourning.
At the bottom of the park is a crossroads where a boy stands. He is tall for his age but hunched, hands thrust into the pocket that runs along the front of his stomach. Here in the dark his black school trousers and navy blue hoodie camouflage him.
The boy is very still, but does not seem threatening. Whatever energy he has has either been spent or is yet to surge to the surface and out. For the moment, at least, he means no harm.
Over his shoulder a police car approaches the crossroads. Illuminated only by the lamppost’s orange glow it looks ghostly, slightly removed from the street it now patrols. As it rolls toward the junction another car flashes past, and the police car strains and rocks back as its driver stamps on the brake pedal.
The blue lights flash on and three pairs of eyes follow the glowing red tail light as it shrinks into the distance. The boy holds his breath, waiting for the siren to break this silence. Reflections bounce off nearby windows but the piercing sound never comes. The car’s occupants are satisfied with this brief flex of their power.
As they drive away, one of the policemen turns his head toward the boy. Almost invisible, hood shrouding his face, hands stuffed into his pocket. Should they stop him? No. He’s doing nothing wrong. There’s no law against standing in a park in the dark, especially when it draws in so early this time of year. And better one boy than ten. There’s no law against wearing a hoodie, either. The boy might just be cold.
And it is cold. Early November, when chill and frost meet bonfires and fireworks. In a few hours the sky will explode in colour and dogs will cower in kitchens. But for now only the distant lights of an aeroplane and the white face of the moon mark the sky. He hopes it’s quiet. He likes the night shift when it’s quiet. Paul’s quiet too, and a good driver. That pillock in the car, what was it? An Audi? Going far too fast. Should’ve given chase really, get him on the side of the road, listen to his excuses then book him. But it’s the start of a long shift on Bonfire Night. No use looking for trouble when it can find you.
The boy watches the police car leave. A sense that he’s been denied, that he’s missed out on something exciting swells through him. He could have been the key witness: he saw the car, dangerously fast, speeding down Alton Street. The image takes him up and he’s away into a world of interview rooms, of the bitter, sick slosh of coffee, maybe even of a judge behind a thick oak bench. As he plays out his role his face takes on a serious, carved expression and he nods at the right moments, appropriately solemn, acting his part to perfection. He pictures the speeding driver: he’s got short hair and angry red spots across his face. In court he wears a plasticky suit that hangs too wide over his shoulders and he slouches in the witness box.
The boy can’t do the next bit. He doesn’t know how the judge will sound or what he might say, and his attempt to invent it jars the scene and it trails off. He shivers, suddenly aware of the wind jabbing at his neck. He pushes a sleeve up to see his watch: nearly time to go in for tea, and to trouble. But more trouble if he doesn’t. Running out of school is one thing, a blast of anger. Missing a meal is another, more serious. He knows this, though couldn’t explain it.
He taps his fingers one-two-three against the lighter and brings it out of his trouser pocket. He feels for the small wheel and runs him thumb quickly down it. Nothing. He tries again, pressing harder. Just the feel of the ridges on his thumb. Once more. This time a flame springs from its tip and sways in his cupped hand, warming the closest fingers with a thin heat.
Slowly so as not to shock the fire out, he bends his knees and lowers himself to the ground. There’s a long stem of grass rising towards him and he brings the flame to it. It leans backwards, away, and it won’t catch, although the tip of the grass shrivels and blackens. He lets the flame disappear and looks for an alternative. He’s found a loose, thin strand of something, soft and dry. He touches the light to it and it leaps across, splitting the flame into two, one dancing on the end of the lighter and the other travelling now down the reed.
The moment the flame separated has reminded him of something, and he searches his mind for the word. What was it called? He thinks it’s mitosis, but he can’t be sure. He thinks of Mr Porter, tries to picture his drawing on the blackboard. But thinking of Mr Porter has dragged something else with it, something from earlier, something he hadn’t wanted to remember. He tries to push it out of his mind but it’s slippery and slides round the edges. The reed has burnt up now, but the leap to more fuel is too much for the flame and it vanishes, leaving just a small purple stain on the boy’s vision.
He doesn’t notice. He’s back earlier that day, behind the thick long science benches with their dug-in grooves and grubby white sinks, and the faint sulphuric smell that three different teachers have failed to remove. Porter stands facing the board, scratching bonds and atoms onto its surface, wearing his tight beige trousers and the same shirt as every day. Strip lights overhead drown out any light from outside, although today there is little in any case.
The scrape of chalk on slate masks the white noise of low chatter in the room. The boy sits near the back, head slumped onto a hand that presses a headphone into his ear. Behind him there’s a murmur of plotting, of laughter that threatens to break out. Then a well-aimed throw, a short silent flight, the soft rustle of paper hitting hair. The surprise makes him cry out. Porter doesn’t notice, but the boys on the back table do. A mutter of laughter; whispers he can’t make out.
“Hey, Mark.” He’s meant to hear this one. Its urgency forces his head round. “Smells!” Sniggering into blazer sleeves. He turns back, feeling the burning just below his skin. It’s too much. He grabs the nearest missile, a pen. It cartwheels in the air, missing its target, a light plastic clatter on vinyl floor.
“Mark!” The voice barks from the front. He spins back round and a headphone slips from his ear and dangles wildly in front of him. Automatically he slides a hand into his blazer pocket and stops the music. There’s silence.
“Bring that here.” There is no negotiation in the voice. The stool is high and as he leans off it tilts onto two legs. For an instant it hangs as if about to fall, but it bangs back down.
Now there’s just the slap of his shoes on the floor as he walks. As he passes each bench there’s fascinated delight on the faces staring at him. There are four benches before the front. He passes the first two, head down. Then on the third, a breathed slight. So nearly inaudible. So precisely weighted.
And suddenly he’s screaming a wet hot banshee-wail, flinging his balled hands down, stamping his right foot. If there are words they’re hidden behind the fury he wildly strafes across the classroom. There’s open laughter now and it is the sight of a child in the second row, face red and creased with shocked delight, that spurs Porter into movement.
The boy doesn’t see him at first, but he ducks the oncoming arm, shedding his blazer to the teacher’s clutch. The discman springs open when it hits the floor and the loose headphones trail from a sleeve. Porter freezes at the noise, just for a moment, but it’s enough. He’s out now. Broken through the door, sliding near one-handed down the stairs, a move perfected from days of being first out at lunch. The front of his shirt has escaped his belt and his tie wraps itself around his side as he runs out past reception.
He doesn’t see the trees, or the buildings, or the cars, nor does he feel the puddles from the morning’s rain as they splash up around his feet. He’s running blindly, not conscious of his direction. Some people must see him, a lone schoolboy charging bull-like down the road, but if they do they make no move to stop him. Then somehow he’s home, tongue panting out of his mouth. He stabs the keys into the lock; it’s too early for anyone to be in. His anger’s tunnel vision widens and he notices for the first time the cold pricking at his bare neck, slipping through his thin white shirt. He snatches a hoodie drying over a banister and with only a brief hesitation climbs the stairs and strides into the room along the landing.
He’s not allowed in here. He’s seen it before, but by invitation only, and never for long. He takes a moment to look around it now, to savour this freedom. There’s a large poster over the bed, he guesses of artwork, that’s coming away from the wall in the top left corner. A cardboard box with 3KG written in thick marker pen, sticking out from where it’s been shoved untidily underneath the bed. A guitar case propped against a cupboard. A bookshelf littered with pens and foreign coins in front of the books that support each other in triangles. A black amplifier humming by a bedside cabinet.
The cabinet drawer sticks when he pulls it open. He daren’t move anything in it, but to look upon this secret horde is victory enough. There’s papers with what looks like girl’s handwriting in looping purple letters, a metal tin with a raised picture of an Indian, loose untitled discs that shine back rainbow bars.
At first his attention is drawn to the letters, and he is contemplating breaking his silent promise not to take anything – this is too rich a find to leave – when he sees his reward, flush to the back left-hand corner of the drawer: a small gold and silver lighter.
His promise is forgotten. He’ll have to make sure his own secrets are well-hidden if he fires this opening salvo, but all things seem possible at this moment. Taking the lighter has broken the spell, however, and the room feels forbidden again. Fingers clenched around his prize he now has to find somewhere to enjoy it. Not in the house: at this moment the car could be on its way from the office, speakers crackling out traffic reports, his mother churning the phonecall from the headteacher in her mind.
An idea seizes him, clawing up from somewhere inside and taking a hold. He tries to squash it, to push it back down, because this isn’t any sort of idea for a boy like him. But it’s in him now, sprouting and arcing itself through him towards the light. The boy is a spectator as this force commands his body out through the door and up the road, to the shop where he used to buy comics on a Friday. Plastic pumpkins and black pointed hats hang around a display case containing fireworks and rubber masks. One of the doors is stuck open, and the boy can see that there’s a clump of black ribbon dangling from a hat jammed into the corner between the door and its frame. There’s a queue at the till and Mr Cullen is busy turning and bending to the cigarettes behind him, and scanning tins and magazines and packets of crisps.
The boy presses his hands flat together and slips his fingers inside the crack of the door. It hardly opens any further. He can curl his fingers now, careful not to move his wrists any more than necessary as he pinches and pulls the plastic wrapper apart. His arms jolt as the plastic separates and the door bangs against his foot. He can’t breathe. Can’t look. But there’s just the beep, beep, rustle from the counter round the corner.
He breathes out a great rush of air and peels the plastic further apart until something slips to the floor. He pretends to tie his shoelaces as he picks it up and slides it like a bolt into the pocket on the front of his hoodie. He’s done this before, with magazines that he stuffs under his mattress, but this is something new. He can tell by the pins and needles in his stomach like someone’s lit a tiny, prickling fire.
Then, hands in pockets, he’s down the street and past his house and past the crossroads and to the park and up the hill. The house is shadowed against the greying sky. The left window is broken and glass patterns the rough floor inside. For the first time that afternoon he pauses. Maybe he should try the door. But that’s too ordinary. It’s out of line with his day’s rebellion.
Carefully he eases a leg over the windowsill, standing on tiptoes to raise himself above the remaining pointed shards of glass. He overbalances but doesn’t fall, and staggers one-legged for three steps until he’s righted. It feels like loose sheets of newspaper under his feet but he has to wait until his eyes have adjusted to the murk to be sure.
The newspapers are yellowed with damp and age but there are faces he recognises from TV, from when he would sneak downstairs when he should have been asleep. Once he was in the room he knew he’d be allowed to stay until the programme finished, watching his dad from the corner of his eye to know when to laugh.
There are old beer cans here too, some crushed, some deceptively plump. Flattened cigarettes. Scraps of something, foil maybe. In a corner, a bundle of something that might pass for blankets. Someone’s been here after all. In a few years he’d be too scared to keep going, but today he’s fearless and looks through to the next room. He flinches: his eyes see nothing, but his mind sits a white-eyed man, mouth parted, staring fixedly through the empty frame.
If there has ever been a door between this room and the next it was stolen years before. Maybe for firewood, or for a dare to impress someone, or just because. Just because it was possible.
Remember how things started. They started with something.
He’s almost forgotten his stolen treasure as he picks his way through the house, through the makeshift carpet and discarded rubbish. He comes to a staircase, but the last of the light filtering through the scarred roof shows it has sunk in the middle, and the rotten carpet that still covers it droops and sags.
The sudden glimpse of outside makes him think he shouldn’t be here much longer. His courage has waned, sucked by the dim rooms and their high ceilings to mingle with the stale dust. He leaves the way he came in, but quicker, then at the foot of the hill he turns to look at the house. He stands here as the world turns until a police car rolls up to the crossroads behind him.
Once it has gone he feels in his pocket for the long, thin metal. At school and in the park, or back gardens of family friends’ houses, these are talked of with derision. A child’s substitute, not to be seen dead holding. But now this is his, and it’s different, and possession brings with it a race of the pulse.
He imagines a version of himself stepping forward, out of himself, and hurling the lit stick spinning through the window. Imagines the tiny trackmarks left on his thumb, his own temporary tattoo. He weighs the thought like a pebble before skimming, feeling its heaviness.
One final, lactic surge. He tenses his arm to keep it steady. With his right thumb he presses urgently on the lighter and lets the flame lick the end of the rod in his hand. The sudden shock of gold startles him and the lighter falls. He wants to drop to his knees and find it, pat the grass until he has it again, but there’s no time. He runs forward and draws back his arm and for a fraction of a second it spits hot against his ear like oil from the pan.
It fizzes through the air and a thrill spreads both from his arm and head. He watches it arc, turning, and he wonders if he let it burn down too far. The evening’s first guncracks and he looks up, hoping to see the florets of red, blue, green spread over the sky. And he’s off, off home for his tea.
Later, someone sees a flicker from a window and picks up the phone. A police car that passed it earlier pulls up to the old abandoned house that stares uncomprehending, burning. A siren’s blurt is quickly cut off and the memory of it hangs there a moment longer. A blaze of lights diffuses into the sky like ink in water. There’s a creaking roar as the staircase finally gives way.
These things happen.
The owner of an empty burnt-out house is found and has the house demolished.
A boy gets a bollocking from his mother and has to apologise to his science teacher, and grows up like everyone else.
A shopkeeper taking his stock notices a torn pack of sparklers with one missing, clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and writes it off.
I originally wrote this a few years ago (I must have been reading a lot of Jon McGregor), but returned to it recently and gave it a polish. It’s not what I would write now, but I think it holds up – and there really was a house like that, although I never went in (nor set it alight).