Chris Castle

Posted on June 17, 2011

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Door to door

He walked up the driveway, glancing at the flowers and looking to see if the curtains flickered as he edged closer to the door. Fliers poked out of the letterbox and he immediately saw an opening. As he listened to the footsteps on the other side of the door he reached out and grabbed the letters with his free hand. The lock slid back and he adjusted the weight of the briefcase between his fingers, readying himself.

“Ma’am? I’m Ben Fleck and I’m looking to speak to people in the area.” He smiled brightly and looked at the middle-aged woman looking him over. “Here’s your mail, by the way. I see there are a lot of circulars in your mail ma’am but rest assured I won’t be wasting your time today.”

This was the moment he was either sent on his way or ushered in. Usually he could judge the client as soon as their eyes met and he thought today he would have some luck. She seemed a little wary, naturally, but friendly too, which gave him a chance. The three second window of the door slamming shut ticked over and he rolled on his heels, waiting.

“Come in,” she said. As he handed her the mail she offered a sad smile and he nodded, noting not to overdo the bright, sparkly conversation. To make a good impression he wiped his shoes on the welcome mat, which she seemed to appreciate.

“My husband used to do the very same thing,” she said and the smile seemed to lift a little, almost beaming. “Rare for younger men to remember their manners,” she went on and the sadness, for a moment, seemed to slip away. This is why we do it, the second voice whispered in Ben’s ear. He brushed it off and stepped inside the house.

The woman, Glenn, signed on the line for two of the promotions and left her follow up details with him: None of that mattered. The victory for Ben was the time spent in the house. The room had a strong, identifiable scent-lavender-and the walls were full of framed photos and captured moments. As they sat he began to look admiringly at each one and began to ask questions; at first she was slow to talk but once she began he found she could not stop. As she spoke Ben found himself stealing more and more glances around the room; it was a map of the woman’s heart. By the time it was over, a full hour later, the teapot was drained to bottom and a mass of crumbs sat on their plates.

It was only spoiled by his own mistake; he rose, thanking her and suddenly the warmth drained out of her face. For a second he wondered what it was he had done wrong and then felt his own face flush red. I’ve forgotten the reason I came here, he realised with a sharp snap of terror. Quickly, he made a joke of it and immediately scooped the paperwork out of his briefcase but the damage was already done. Though she followed him as he began the company speech, there was an air of caution in her eyes after that moment. Ben felt her eyes moving over him, hurriedly returning him to the status of a stranger. At the door he turned to say something as a way of goodbye but she was already nudging the door to a close.

Sloppy, the second voice said and Ben nodded along in agreement. He walked down the path, satisfied with what he’d taken and angry at how lazy he had been. The day was almost over and he called it a day.

                                                          *

That night he sat at his desk cursing himself for the obvious mistake. For a long time after returning to his apartment he could not get down to filing his work and it took a cigarette and a scotch to settle him. When he was of a right mind and his fingers had stopped shaking, Ben began to go about the business at hand. First, he shredded the fake contracts, listening to the buzz of the machine and the soft sound of the threads of paper as they filtered out of the other end.

After that was complete, he set the small Dictaphone on the centre of the table, a good few inches from where he sat so the sound was clear and pressed play. As he followed the conversation, he opened his notebook and began to transcribe what the woman had said. When the transmission finished, he turned to a fresh page and wrote the details down of the house, the scent and the feelings he had about the woman he’d sat opposite. He remembered his mantra for trying to understand the trick to the process; what was said and all the words they did not say.

When the job was over he ran a hot bath and lit a single candle, which he placed over the tap. As he climbed into the scolding hot water, he breathed rapidly until heat began to subside and he felt his skin attune to the water. For the first time in the day, the only time, he relaxed. Ben closed his eyes, the blur of the candle behind his eyelids and said the woman’s name out loud. After a while he looked round for the notebook and the calm he felt drained out of him. It was not there.

The stark terror that ran through him made him clutch his heart; the idea of dying of a heart attack at thirty two seemed ridiculous. Ben pulled out of the bath and looked on the floor by the candle light. As he collapsed onto the floor he saw the fallen book lying under the chair; his heart slowed and smiling he reached out for it. The feel of the book re-assured him until he rolled onto his back and placed it over his chest. The fat little notebook held the lives of 921 strangers between those pages. His heart soared and for a moment there was a feeling of utter peace that washed over him. Then he had laughed until tears ran from his eyes. Ben Fleck just couldn’t stop laughing.

                                                         *

So it went for the rest of that summer. Ben Fleck drove from town to town, his suitcase ready and his Dictaphone charged. The book slowly filled and each night he wrote as much as he shredded. The second voice cropped up occasionally; it scolded him lightly one evening when Ben began to wonder why it was he did what he did. He was on the cusp of an answer when the second voice bit down and harshly interrupted his thoughts; it screamed so brightly it rocked him in the bathwater, causing much of it to spill over the sides of the tub. Don’t ask the questions to anyone but strangers, it said finally, when its rant was over. Ben mumbled in agreement, stunned and after that night tried not to dwell too much on his actions. So it went on until the last day of summer.

                                                           *

The first street was not so much unsuccessful as downright hostile. The same happened on the second street; by the end of the day he was close to quitting when a police car rolled by and his heart froze. Keep walking, the second voice said, or it’s over. Ben kept walking, oddly aware of the idea of actually moving his legs and his arms and feeling like some twisted version of a comedy sketch. The car seemed to slow briefly as he walked to the crossroads and Ben didn’t notice the voice until the policeman turned in the same direction.

“I said; what are you selling, son?” The old man called out. He was standing in his garden, watering his flowers. Ben turned abruptly to the old man and made himself smile.

“I got some opportunities to make you rich,” he said automatically, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak and dry as it felt.

“My god, well in that case you’d better come in. No sadder sight than a door to door salesman walking down a street full of closed doors!” The old man smiled and waved him in, inadvertently spraying a little water his way. As Ben stepped up to the gate the police car edged on and away. He sighed and noticed a drop of water from the hose had splashed the tip of his shoe. Relax now, the voice whispered. He shook it away and peeled the smile back onto his face as he closed the gate behind him.

“Wish the police made a habit of cruising by at night when it matters,” the old man said before offering his hand. “Phil Jones.”

“Ben Fleck,” he replied, feeling the last trace of fear dripping away as he held the man’s hand: Contact.

“Maybe we should have this business proposal out here in the sun, what do you say?” the old man went on. “Seems a shame to waste all this fine weather, don’t you think?”

“Right you are,” Ben replied instantly, understanding the old man was sharp and wanted snappy-patter. He widened the smile on his face, even as his heart shimmered at the idea of missing out on the inside of the house.

“It’s just I have this paperwork,” he went on, letting the words drift out into the suggestion of the need for a sturdy table, perhaps in the dining room.

“It’ll all come to pass,” the old man said, walking to the side of the porch and handing him a second fold out chair. “A drink?”

“I’ll take coffee if you have any on the pot,” he answered, setting down his case and awkwardly snapping the chair into life.

“Black coffee on a summer’s day. Hell son, you are a salesman, aren’t you? Right you are. I’ll be back in a while. Enjoy the view.” He waved to the street and a crooked grin ran over his face before he disappeared.

Ben set the case down against the chair and looked out to the cars drifting by. I can still get inside and learn everything at the end, he told himself. I can learn about him while I’m out here, he reasoned, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He loosened his tie and sat down. Behind him the old man puttered around the kitchen which was by the window. As he came out with the tray, Ben made to stand to help but saw the old man’s face shushing him away.

“If I don’t do something, I’m not doing anything,” he said setting the tray down. He handed a coffee over to Ben and then took one for himself, raising it up. “To the working man.”

“The working man,” he repeated as they brushed cups.

“I guess you meet a lot of people in your line of work, huh, Ben?” The old man paused and looked at him, really looked at him, before he sipped his drink. This is not the way it’s supposed to be, the voice snapped and a mild wave of panic washed over him.  

“I meet as many as I can. I like meeting people.” He sipped his coffee and was astounded to see his hands were not shaking. Never tell the truth, the second voice bit in, its tone angry.

“I just bet you do. I would have thought with computers and such, the door-to-door job would be dying out by now.” The old man looked over again. His eyes did not match his body; they were thirty years younger and alert.

“The personal touch, I guess,” he said, setting down his cup. “I asked for it. I don’t much care for being in an office.” Stop talking, stop…revealing, the voice said, raising its tone until the pitch became almost unbearable.

“Rare these days, I figure.” He kept on sipping his drink and looked out to the street. “I worked for forty years as a mechanic and then the country turns round and tells me we don’t have an auto-industry anymore.” He shrugged and then winked at Ben. “You smoke?” 

“I quit,” he said. Are you retired now?” Better. His pulse steadied and he felt himself level. Keep asking the questions, the itch whispered, sounding a little more satisfied.

“I figure so. Industry retires you, rather than the other way round. Let me ask you something,” he went on, reaching into his shirt pocket for the cigarette pack. He lit one and blew the stream away into the street.

“Shoot,” Ben said, feeling the situation slip out of control again. The book almost thumped against his ribs in his inside pocket. It’s hungry, the voice spat out.

“You’re still wearing a tie under the sun even when you’re on the road and the boss ain’t got his eyes on you…” he took another drag and then broke out into a spasm that was halfway between a cough and a laughing fit. “I guess what I’m asking is what makes a fella like you tick?”

“I…I want…” he felt his throat constrict, even as the notebook drummed over his ribs and edged closer to his heart. Blank pages don’t get filled when you’re not asking the questions, the voice said, the tone changing again; this time it just sounded flat, almost unbelieving.

“I want to show people,” Ben whispered.

“What do you want to show them, son?” The old man finished his cigarette and butted it against the extra tray he’d brought out; it was pock marked and scarred with a half-dozen other stubs.

“I want to make a difference,” he said, suddenly aware of how weak his defence sounded. “I just want to…make contact.” Helpless, Ben realised, wondering where the second voice had disappeared to just as he needed its support. I am helpless against the truth of things

“Contact makes sense, I suppose,” the old man said at last. He reached over and patted Richard on the shoulder. It felt both terribly heavy and comforting at the same time.

“Contact,” Ben muttered. He knew it the whole time, he realised. He knew I was a fake from the moment he laid eyes on me.

“Son, a young fella who looks close to paralysed by the law but don’t run is holding onto something worse than a crime and that’s a guilty conscience. You want to tell me what all this is about?” He stooped for his coffee and sipped it, giving Ben time.

“It’s not bad…it’s not a bad thing, I do,” he heard himself say. He waited for a second for the other voice to step in and save him and realised with a sharp pang that it was gone for good.

“I…just need people, you know?” He said it so quietly it was almost a whisper and sat back stunned. It was almost a wonder, he realised, how the truth could be said in so few, simple words.

“I know, son,” the old man replied. He reached into his pocket and shook out another one of his cigarettes.

“I could take one of those,” Ben said, looking over. Somewhere inside him was the book, though he couldn’t feel it any longer. There was a weightlessness to him now but he didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing.

“Sure,” the old man said, shaking out another. He lit his own and then cupped his hands so Ben could drag on his own. The two of them sat quiet for a long time, as the sun began to dip and dusk spread out over the street. They stayed that way for a long time, smoking and drinking, until at last, Ben Fleck began talking.

***

Following Lars

Jacob sat in the car, watching the boys push down on the kid. They took turns, calling out between each shove, saying terrible things and laughing, so the whole noise blended into one, terrible thing. Jacob gripped the steering wheel harder, feeling his heart pound in his chest. The shirt was wet through with sweat. He took a deep, deep breath.

*

Jacob Smith was not the best and he was not the worst. He taught his classes and marked his work. He was fond of some of his students and they liked him well enough in return. He had his favourites, the same way every teacher did and tried not to admit to it around others. Others simply drifted through, seeing him as nothing more than what he was; a function, an adult. Speak when spoken to and leave when the bell sang out.

And then there was Lars.

Lars Laker was a mix of a troublemaker; smart and small, loud yet crafty. When he wasn’t shouting he was scheming; when he wasn’t cheating, he was scrawling graffiti on the desks. He was popular in the way punk-kids are; the smart girls pretended not to listen but cocked their ear; the boys who didn’t follow him, wanted to punch him. He was sweet to those that mattered and sly with the ones in charge.

He made Jacob’s life hell.

He knew, on a fundamental level, it was wrong for an adult to hate a teenager, much less a student in his class, but he couldn’t help it all the same. Jacob had tried all the tricks he knew and the ones he had been told; talking to him after class, trying to befriend him; then scolding him and finally shouting at him. One try was as much a failure as the next. As soon as his back was turned, it began; Lars would whip his papers out of his reach at just the right moment, moving with the speed and dexterity that only teenagers can ever summon. Jacob realised the kid was, in short, bullying him.

The idea made him laugh as much as it hurt him. Never having been a victim at school, he found himself at a loss with how to deal with it now, at twenty eight. The month before he had suffered an outbreak of acne, no doubt brought on by the stress and in the back of his mind he wondered if he wasn’t succumbing to some weird mid-life/teenage regression breakdown. At night, a nightmare would repeat itself, simply and succinctly; Jacob as the student, bossed into tears by his five-foot one inch teacher. Night sweats added to the acne-agony.

The problem was that it pervaded his working week; the lessons with him fell in the middle of the week; the first part of the week was build-up torture, then the lessons themselves and finally the end of the week, the fractious weekend, the countdown starting itself over. Back-to-school-itis loomed large every Sunday evening, the distractions of the cinema, his books, all failing to make him forget fully, that the lessons loomed large. A Wednesday-Thursday double period weight sat around his shoulders.

Jacob suffered what all teachers suffered: Tunnel vision. He assumed that all other teachers never suffered any sorts of problems (they clearly did) and subsequently was incapable of asking for help. Other teachers noted it anyway and offered advice; others spoke of it lightly, adding an appraising gaze over him that pretty much screamed; ‘grow a pair.’ He became aware he was snapping in some of his harmless classes; Lars-by product, threatening to spoil the good things he had. He checked himself as best he could; if he turned over the applecart and let other classes go rotten, he could pretty much hand the p45 in there and then.

But then, he loved the job.

His best attribute was also his worst failing; he was an emotive teacher. He responded to the classes that sparked and was completely at a loss in how to capture the imagination of one that sat-flat. It being his first teaching job, he was not experienced enough to change problems into solutions and not jaded enough to not care about his classes. He was, all in all, a soft target/fresh meat sitting duck and a meal-ticket for a kid such as Lars.

Three weeks until the exams: usually the time when even the laziest kids began to panic or it at least dawn on them that something was expected. In a strange way it was one of the better times for Jacob; the kids got focused, they participated out of blind fear or desperation and he could usually work on them enough to start getting some results. Pre-exam time was a blur; sometimes he would wake up on Monday and go to bed on Thursday and it feel like one, long day.

Lars’s class was small, only four other boys, and the others seemed to want to at least take the exams; they grew tired of their classmate and turned back to Jacob; once, after he had sent the kid out of class, the group worked together in a way he had never seen before and it had turned out to be easily their best lesson together. And then he returned for the second hour and the wheels slowly came off; one other boy joined in with his cat-calls, another lost patience and then interest; by the end of it, the normal zoo-like atmosphere had returned.

That night, he couldn’t sleep; it wasn’t just how badly the session had ended-bad to the point another teacher had to open his door and ask if the class was okay-but how good the hour before had been. Jacob lay staring at the ceiling, his book on the floor next to him unread. The exams were what he lived or died by; not in regards his position but the kids themselves. He cared about them and needed them to pass, to do well. Another part of him, the small, sharp part, whispered something else, almost in Lars voice, almost his own: I need them to succeed to know I’m not a failure.

Jacob watched the boys during the breaks; from his room he could see them outside, playing recklessly, being loud and brazen with the girls. Jacob waited for the moment when Lars would actually pull a girl’s pigtails to show his undying love, but it didn’t quite happen. Instead, he was just a normal kid, having a good time. It explained everything, it was not enough. Jacob started to wonder about the boy’s parents, his upbringing; he started reaching for a reason. The bell ran and it made him jump more than the kids; he ran his hand over his brow and found out he was sweating.

He was driving home one day and happened to see Lars walking along the street. On his own, Jacob noticed just how small he was, tiny really. If he didn’t know him, he would have been one of the students he would have worried about. Jacob drove on and turned the same corners. It was only when the boy disappeared up the porch steps and into his house that Jacob wondered how close the kid lived to him. Then, with a sudden, completely cool stab in his gut, he realised he was nowhere near home.

He had followed the boy.

What the hell was he thinking? Jacob sat in his kitchenette clutching a beer and smoking a cigarette. It was too much; never mind losing his job, it was something he could go to jail for. What the hell was he thinking? He shook his head and took another swig from the bottle. This is how it starts, he thought to himself; you go crazy and you don’t even know it. He thought about all the lunatics he saw in the paper every day; every one of them bug-shit crazy and looking deranged as hell. They probably didn’t even see it when they shaved, he realised now. Jacob took his drink over to the window and looked out. He counted stars until he calmed down and his breath steadied.

When his heart settled he walked over to the sink and poured the rest of the beer down the sink. Being an alky on top was something he didn’t need right now he thought and laughed. Over the sink was his schedule for the week; it had green lines running through it where extra exam time had been included. Time was moving quickly now, like summer holidays when he was a kid; how could six weeks go so fast, he had wondered? Jacob stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray and sighed. Don’t lose it, he thought and then said it out loud. He stubbed the cigarette out for a second time, a third. Don’t lose it.

Two weeks before the exam and he had sent the boy out twice already. It was getting ridiculous; Jacob couldn’t decide if he was overreacting or the kid was getting worse. He noticed the other boys couldn’t quite look him in the eye now; he wasn’t sure if they were embarrassed of him or for him. Their mock tests were bad and getting worse, even though he knew they had it in them. He threw energy at the class and got nothing; he made them study in silence and got nothing. In his nightmares the boys had no faces; blank as the exams sheets they held in their hands.

Last week before the exam: The boys grew sullen and fatalistic about the tests. He tried to encourage them and heard the sour, hollow twang in his own voice. For the first time he wondered if he shouldn’t cut the group off and concentrate on the others; he wondered if this was a feeling all teachers got at some stage in their lives. Jacob tried to shake it off and kept ploughing on. As his tiredness grew, the nightmares stopped. Everything grew blank; blank sheets of paper, blank spaces where ideas could be; everything in his vision became a whiteboard, sterile and hopeless.

It was the Friday before the exam and he was driving home when he saw Lars out of the corner of his eye; he almost laughed at the way he couldn’t shake the kid out of his slipstream. Even when he did see him, he took no real notice; he was set on going home and preparing the last minute work for the exams. If not for the group of boys following him, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Jacob knew there was going to be trouble, perhaps even before the boys themselves; they walked as a loose pack, the way only boys could do; almost on the verge of breaking but tight all the same. It was not just the numbers but the way they walked, too; they shifted slightly whenever Lars did, tracing him, staying the same distance each time a corner was turned. Sure enough, an alleyway appeared before too long.

*

Jacob jumped out of the car and ran towards the alleyway, calling out to the gang. He intentionally shouted as loud as he could, hoping to draw attention from other people, shopkeepers and not get his ass kicked or as an added bonus, stabbed. At first the boys stopped; they looked stunned at first, open jawed at being shouted at by what seemed to be an amateur dramatics drop-out. One laughed, another turned to face him, but then the rest of them figured he was pretty much yelling ‘fire’ and what would come with it. They split down the alley, one of them kicking Lars as he left, until there were just the two of them. Without speaking he helped the boy up and out of the trash, figuring the last thing he needed was to be found by the police in an alley holding a teenage boy. The two of them pitched up onto the steps of the local video shop, where Jacob handed him his school bag; rapper name, swear words and a football emblem. For a long time they sat in silence.

“Thanks,” he said, not looking over. Instead, he looked out to the traffic, the street;

No-one had come over, no-one had helped. If the gang hadn’t ran, they both could have got hurt.

“You’re welcome,” Jacob replied, not looking over and following the traffic too. After another long second, the boy got up and walked away. He hurried off down the road, looking around. Jacob understood he was scared, even though he was trying not to show it. He wondered if he looked similar when he stepped into his class each week.

The day of the exam: The students all gathered outside the hall, clutching their pencil cases and exam ID’s. Jacob went round as best he could, talking to those who wanted to talk, nodding to those who sat nervous or not caring on the fringes. The boys huddled in one corner, trying to act casual but not quite managing it. Instead, their conversation was stop-start, their giggling and laughing uneasy and fake. He walked over to them and wished them good luck; they all said thank you or hummed something close to it. He caught Lars’ eye for a moment before moving on. The examiner stepped out of the hall and began to speak.

Jacob sat in the hallway, waiting for the exams to finish. A few came out early, shrugging over to him and already thinking about the sun, the test forgotten. The bell itself rang out and the flood came out; there was the noisy hum and chatter of the kids asking each other what they put for this question and that question. Others practically ran for the exit, chasing the sun outside. The boys came towards the back, shuffling, dead-arm punching each other and not mentioning the test. He raised his hands to them and one or two waved back, while the others busied themselves with collecting their bags, their coats. The rest of the students swamped towards the doors and the noise grew louder, even as the exam room fell into total silence.

Jacob looked out of the window and watched the boys as they walked out into the street; their bags were over their shoulders; one nudged the other and small, harmless fights broke out between them. Even from where he stood, four flights up, he could hear Lars’ voice as he protested about something until the others all laughed. The five of them walked until they reached the crossroads and then they broke away, two going one way, three going another.

He smiled to himself and collected his satchel. Even though there was officially another three weeks left, everyone knew the term, the year was over; it was almost summer. Jacob walked down the steps and wondered how the kids had done in the exams; some would have passed, others would have failed. There would be surprises, good and bad and he would feel he had tried his best, even as another part of him would tell him he could do better. It mattered to him and it was important and somehow it was already partly forgotten about, by him as well as the students. He reached the fire door and stepped out into the sun; checking there was no-one else around, he allowed himself to tilt his neck to the sun and closed his eyes. Jacob stayed that way for a long time, slowly not caring if anyone did see him; finally, he allowed himself a smile.

***

No-One Ever Really Dies

I was visiting my mum on spring break. The coach ride was a nightmare and I arrived at dawn when I was due in the night before. I had walked from the station through the old neighbourhood, checking that nothing had changed; I hugged mum at the front step long and hard and fell into my old bed minutes later. The room was full of baby stuff now; my sister’s second. I fell asleep with one foot nudging the dinosaur in the corner, triggering a brief sing-a-long that I mumbled along to even as I fell asleep. The room smelled familiar and it made my heart ache for a reason I couldn’t understand.

I woke up to the sound of my mum rushing around in the other room, her feet padding across creaking boards that could make an elephant out of a mouse. I threw on some clothes and went to see what the commotion was; outside the traffic pulsed along and rain finally began to fall from the slate grey sky.

“It’s your sister,” she said, jamming a t-shirt into her canvas overnight bag. “Donnie’s running a fever and she needs an extra pair of hands.” She stopped long enough to walk over and put her hand on the side of my face; she had to reach up to do it now and it suddenly made me feel sad to realise that.

“Can I help?” I said, knowing that between my ma and sister, all I could ever do was create extra problems. She went back to the bag and smiled.

“I don’t want you to get sick on your first day back, not when you’ve only got two weeks.” She finished packing the bag and zipped it up; I loved the way she could come up with an excuse-stroke-reason rather than just tell the truth. I was beginning to understand it must be a parent’s secret weapon.

“I’ll call later; food’s in the fridge. I’m sorry to run out on you like this,” she said, pushing up to kiss me. I stooped down and we met in the middle.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, taking the bag from her and followed her down the stairs. I stood by the front door and opened it for her. She smiled and marched on, her keys in her hand and an umbrella wedged in the crook of her arm. At the gate she turned and waved goodbye and I waved back as she snapped the umbrella up. For a second I stood by the open door, remembering the different colours it had been painted over the years; red when I was a kid, green when I was a teenager, blue just before I left, three years before.

It was my father’s anniversary. He had died four years before; in truth, I was partly relieved mum had been called away so we didn’t have to deal with it. Ours is a family that knows love but has a hard time showing it. The previous years I had been away and had called; we asked each other if we were okay, without offering the painfully clear reason why. I closed the door.

I cleaned myself up and mooched around the house; the one friend I had kept in contact with was tied up and I had nothing much to do. Instead, I simply enjoyed walking around the house, remembering growing up and attaching specific spots to certain memories; the corner I had gashed my head; the piece of carpet I had set particular toy soldiers down onto. I stood in the cupboard under the stairs for too many minutes, remembering the old coin operated electric meter and how my dad used to let me drop the coins in before he twisted the lever. It was the happiest time of my life.

I stood at the top of the stairs by the bedrooms and looked at the ladder propped up against the wall; my brother-in-law had been round painting recently; otherwise it was kept wedged down the side of the bathroom. Above me was the attic where all our junk was stored; old board games, trash and maybe one or two things that were actually worth keeping.

And my comic collection.

Ah yes, my collection; no sex and drugs for this young man; instead I collected issues of Marvel and DC the way normal kids chased girls; eight boxes sitting in amongst the beams and dust. Before I knew it I was assembling the ladder and trying to remember where we kept the high powered torch. A memory flash: Being allowed to climb the ladder into the attic and being warned of the old rafters. Elevated from the responsibility of holding it steady to climbing each rung; feeling, for the first time, something other than a little kid. I set the ladder, flipped the hook down to lock it and climbed.

I popped the attic lid and pulled myself up into the darkness. The musty smell was everywhere; almost wet but impossibly dry at the same time. For years I imagined it was what hospitals must have smelled like until I had to visit one the day my dad died; the first time I was something other than a teenager. Welcome to real life. I snapped on the torch and saw the boxes, placed haphazardly along the beams.

I was lazy; I used old cardboard boxes rather than storage containers and put three copies to a single plastic cover bag rather than use them one to one. Over the top of each bag I draped supermarket bags and cello-taped them to the side of the boxes; in the comic field it was no doubt sacrilege. I reached over.

To the left of me was my brother’s old bike-I had never learned; one of many deficits, alongside not being able to swim that no doubt led me to the world of superheroes and far-out stories-and to the right was a set of tired looking board games. I positioned myself as best I could and leant over for the nearest box.

It had been a couple of years since I had read any of them; hell, a couple of years since I’d even thought about them. I remembered towards the end of it, when my interest slowly ebbed away to nothing; the last few half-hearted buys, knowing I was only doing it for the sake of it. I clearly remember how sad I felt that it was over. Sure, the exciting stuff was happening all around me-and finally to me-but I remember being aware of really losing something. I can’t even remember the last issue I bought.

I lifted a stack out of the nearest box and immediately remembered each of the character’s names and the plot lines. On some of them were the price stickers and I slowly recalled the two places I used to visit to buy them. One place I would browse, the other I would visit every third Saturday with my dad to collect my order. Did my dad miss those trips after I blithely dropped the whole scene? Of course he must of; he was probably as acutely aware as I was completely clueless. He endured it in silence if he did-a parent’s other secret weapon-and never mentioned it to me. Each Saturday we would collect them, my dad good humouredly walking around before stepping out to the betting shop; afterwards we would stop at the pub and sit in the car sharing a packet of crisps between our two drinks: A pint for him and a bitter lemon for me. The dashboard had wet rings each time we lifted out glasses; my dad always tried me to sit inside the pub with him; every time I refused.

I thumbed through six or seven issues, laughing at how big-chested every woman was and how impossibly square jawed each hero seemed to be; this was back in the times when superheroes didn’t display flaws or any sort of grip on reality. A year or two ago a friend of mine was reading a thick looking comic and handed it to me when he saw me looking over his shoulder. I grinned and explained how I used to be well into them, explaining my favourites, laughing at the stories that used to be my world. He sighed and explained how they were called ‘graphic novels’ now and every title he read were ‘suggested for mature readers’. I skimmed through it; it was a fully realised work of art; the storyline was tough, the characters looked like real people; they swore like sailors and there were no happy endings; it was a brilliant piece of work and it left me profoundly unhappy. It was not the way I wanted to remember them; I didn’t want the real world stepping on the toes of my childhood and reminding me that art reflected real life. I handed it back to my friend, nearly in tears and told myself to never pick another one up out of idle curiosity for fear of killing the rest of my youthful memories.

In a way I’m glad my old man never saw comics grow up, in the same way as he didn’t see too much of me become a screw up. He was sixty-three when he died and I never got to see him get old. A small part of me thought it was a good thing; I would never seem him turn fragile and need other people. But I would never hear all the things I knew he still had to tell me, to share. A father’s wisdom matters, no matter if it’s right or wrong or even the truth. I set the stack back into the box and reached for another.

Something caught my eye as I reached for the next batch and I carefully tip-toed over to what I thought was a strap; sure enough I found the old gas mask that my parents had kept for god knows how long. I smiled remembering my brother; he found it and brought it down one afternoon, dusted it cleaned it up. Sure enough he put it on, all the while my ma telling him not to, my dad encouraging him; sure enough I was close-by and curious and sure enough the old strap broke and the whole thing fell on my face, breaking my nose and causing all sorts of merry hell in our household.

I looped the gasmask over my hands and looked at it; it didn’t look as cool and impressive as I remembered it to be back then. Now, it looked ugly and sinister; the distended mouth piece and the oversized goggles felt like something distorted or warped. I knew someplace; my blood was on it, that it had made me bleed.

The same feeling I had when I held the modern day comic-sorry, graphic novel-washed over me. It made me feel scared. I thought about how my dad grew up with war, World War Two, and how I grew up with Iraq . And I thought about how war never goes away, how it’s the bully in every single person’s life, no matter what we are or what we do. And I thought about how now every generation was doomed to grow up with conflict and how it was never going to change, whether we want it to or not and then I set the mask down, out of sight and tried to clap the dirt, the dust and my own dried blood from my palms.

I went back to the small stack of comics and I started to think about how much money it must have cost my parents to indulge me and if I ever once said thank you. I think being grateful is another way of saying that you’ve finally grown up-or at least acknowledged what a selfish asshole you are. I once had a dream that I would sell all the comics and buy my dad a new car; then he died and that dream turned into a nightmare.

I held up a first issue and I suddenly remember how excited I was when I found it in the shop; I said it out loud and I remember my sister was there, for once, and audibly groaned at the behaviour of her geek brother; she always was the most perceptive one of our family. But I remembered clearly back then how holding it felt like treasure, as if I had discovered something, a tangible, honest-to-god secret and it was the best feeling in the world. It was a feeling, I knew now, that only came fleetingly in someone’s life, like a first kiss, and perfect.

I skimmed the pages and saw the hero re-born, the hero regenerated. All those plot lines to bring the hero back from the dead; it was as shameless as it was ingenious. It was heart-warming back then to know that even as they died I would someday see them again; that it was never the end and things were never over, not really. I would see them again and everything would be restored, re-balanced, re-addressed. I closed it and put my hand up to the cover and closed my eyes to go back to that place; everything simple, my father still alive, the world still ahead of me and still a well-intentioned mystery.

I set the comic down and reached into my back pocket. In my wallet was a small photograph I kept with me at all times. It’s a photo of me, aged about six, in the back garden with my dad. He’s sitting down, aviator shades on and smiling. It is some time in the summer. I am at his shoulder, a cape around my shoulders but looking solemn all the same. I have a glass in one hand and am getting ready to drink; my other hand is on my dad’s shoulder, a pose that looks out of place, as if it should belong to someone older. It is my favourite photo in the whole wide world. I know I will keep it with me forever, whatever happens to me and wherever I am. I find a sort of peace in that sometimes. I looked at the photograph and then out to the murky attic and the stacks of old comic books all around me, like friends gathered in a bar for a reunion. I smiled.

Now that I see them, I remember them all, all the characters, how they chain-linked together, how they fired my imagination and made me fall in love with words and pictures and storytelling. I remember how safe they made me feel and how safe they make me feel now. I remember driving in the old car my dad used to have, with the window cracked, listening to the radio. The newspaper always folded to the racing pages, horses circle, odds in brackets. The paper was always set down next to one of my comics. I remember my dad’s voice as we parked and how long we would spend in the shop and how many comics I was allowed to buy.

I look at the photograph and then magazines and I think a thousand thoughts. I remember that somewhere nearby the gas mask is buried but not close enough to interfere with what I’m feeling now. I think about the rain as it hits the roof and rattles above around me, in this attic that used to feel like a cave and a haunted house but is now, with reality and time, just a tired and worn out space. But most of all, I think one thought that runs through the story strand of everything I’ve ever held and read and held dear. It runs through the photograph in my hand how, as long as I am breathing my father is alive in my memories, alive in the stories I share with others about him. He is still here because I am still here. I glance at the comic-books I cherished and know, in my heart of hearts, I always will cherish and how my dad and these pieces of paper are somehow linked and fused together in my heart somehow. I think this one thought and it repeats over and over until I am saying it out loud in this dark place like a prayer: no one ever really dies.

***

Chris Castle is English but works in Greece. He has been published in various magazines and end of year anthologies. His influences include Ray Carver and Stephen King.He can be reached at chriscastle76@hotmail.com

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