Catch up...Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
An hour or so later, upon waking, Duncan shuddered to recall the dream. But a dream it had certainly been – that was all. A combination of the strange phenomena of the previous evening and the whisky had conspired against the possibility of a relaxed and nourishing sleep. It was a shame for now he was not only hungover but exhausted.
He rose and wandered to the bathroom. But it was here on the landing that he received a shock. Glancing almost by chance into Dad’s bedroom, he saw it: the big cardboard box of Dad’s belongings had been pushed away from the wall, revealing a door left ajar to a cupboard full of dust and detritus. But it wasn’t really detritus. He could see from here that the cupboard was full of Mum, Dad and Janet’s ancient belongings. The same belongings, of course, he’d seen in the dream. He knew fine well he hadn’t dealt with that cupboard before last night – he hadn’t so much as opened the door in all the time he’d been back home – so he could only recognise its contents if the dream had been no dream at all, but instead an event – real, tangible, and, in consequence, far more terrifying than the simple nightmare he’d supposed he’d suffered.
Dumbfounded, Duncan staggered downstairs, almost too afraid to enter the living room and kitchen for fear of what he might find. He must now locate that box. He knew that. No longer simply for any hope of material gain, but because he realised – sensed deep in his soul – that he would not rest until he did. Dad had told him to find and bury it. Now, two apparitions appeared to have joined the search. The import those ghouls placed upon the box suggested to Duncan they sought it in earnest. Duncan didn’t know the reason, and he didn’t dare ponder why. He would search again today, search that cupboard. If he didn’t find it there, he’d search again tomorrow. But one thing was certain – he wouldn’t stay here again tonight. He would, if needs be, check in to the Premier Inn down by the river. Much as he hated the Clyde, it was about as far from this house as it was possible to go in Greenock.
He wandered back through the living room from the kitchen and into the hallway. He still wondered hopefully if what he’d experienced last night could have been a nightmare. But if that had been a nightmare, reality now turned a little darker, a little stranger still than even his sleep-addled subconscious. Through the clear glass of the front door he realised with relief that the rain was off. But then he jumped. With pale sunshine falling on him, he baulked at the sudden sight of Juliet and Marian standing in the street, evidently searching for the correct house number. His twin reasons for longing to escape Stirling. How, of all days, had they come to be in Larkfield? And together?
But the vision worsened for behind the two women – one with a face like thunder, the other a little thicker around the hips than when he had last seen her – there now appeared the two men of the night before. Hazy, they stood at a distance, on the other side of the road, watching, mournful and yet determined.
Duncan rushed up the stairs, not knowing what to do. Dad had been right. He must find this box. Why, he couldn’t fathom, but it obviously held the key to whatever strange chain of events was now unfolding – or rather, unravelling – in this house.
It was as though the very fabric of the house knew Duncan’s intentions, and found them disagreeable. As Duncan passed the photo of his father on the hallway wall, it leapt once more from its nail. But more than this, a great rumbling grew from the void of silence that had previously enveloped the house since dawn. Every pipe rattled, the walls seemed to shake, every beam and join and floorboard seemed to creak, disturbed. How ludicrous it was to feel that the house itself was attempting to prevent Duncan from reaching the box!
At the top of the stairs, Duncan tripped. Supine and struggling for oxygen, he heard the familiar sound of Mrs Dempster, talking to another neighbour in the gardens outside. He rushed to a window and pushed it open.
“I’m so sorry about the noise,” he shouted down to them. “I’ll try to sort out the problem as quick as I can.”
But Mrs Dempster and her neighbour only looked baffled.
“What noise?” the old lady asked. “Canny hear anything out here.”
Duncan listened. No, the noise, the rumbling, the infernal creaking had indeed ceased. But as soon as he closed the window, it began again. And more than this, what few of his father’s possessions remained began to fling themselves from walls and carpets in his direction. With violent speed, pictures, ornaments, a glass snow-storm, flung themselves at him. The carpet itself began to tear from the floor, snaking and bunching beneath his feet, slithering seemingly to trip him.
Battering every object away as best he could, Duncan yanked at the contents of the cupboard. These had held firm in the storm around him. He had to find that box. He had to open it. He had to find out what it held. The tumult grew worse, as though the house read his thoughts. Without turning his head, he felt the presence of people behind him. He knew the men had returned to the house. Then, in the corner of his eye, came movement. The world moved it seemed in slow-motion as he twisted far enough to see his father standing in the far corner of the room, a sorrowful look on his face.
Hideous. Every memento was a reminder of events Duncan had long attempted to bury deep within his soul. Mum’s old clothes-peg bag, a stuffed toy or two of Janet’s, Dad’s demob suit. All came tumbling from the cupboard – physical objects to represent the childhood he’d had snatched from him after the accident, as well as the childhood he’d always rejected. Dad’s love. He turned to his father with tears of remorse and terror. His father’s expression, sad and resigned, told a truth, however, that Duncan trembled and wept to accept. It was too late, the eyes told him.
Nothing more remained but the box. There it sat, black metal, chipped and scuffed and scratched and enigmatic. Silent. Duncan gazed down it, knowing he must now open it. All he’d life he’d run from circumstances outwith his control, or from the consequences of his actions, or from decisions he didn’t wish to make. A runner, a coward, forever hiding away from the world in the delusions and fantasies of his own creation, how often he’d been given advice – by Dad in particular – and ignored it. Now, in this moment, there was only one action left to take.
no no No NO NO! It began with a whimper, breath squeezed from his lungs to form sound, but ended with a shout, a great guttural roar of surprise and terror. It was too late to close the lid. The living air of the room had fused now with the dead air inside the box.
The consequences would reveal themselves rapidly. He knew that. Duncan stroked the contents of the box gingerly. Apples that weren’t really apples. At least now he understood. A monumental silence erupted and suffocated the room, noise deafening in its absence. And with it came the chill – an icy breeze like no other Duncan had ever experienced. Darkness drifted over the scene like a pall.
Sitting and awaiting the inevitable, Duncan was overwhelmed by a sudden truth, a sudden realisation. All his life he’d sought to understand and master death through his work – through telling ghost stories. Always, he’d tried to control and manipulate and explain the death that comes to all, the death he thought he sought. His work – his writing – was a bolt from reality, a flit from life, his miserable unfulfilled and unfulfilling life. How much easier it was to sit at a typewriter and imagine oneself in places and circumstances more pleasing than those he was experiencing. How much better one could feel about oneself to leave behind the lies and dubious actions of real life, and reside instead in fantasy?
Moreover, his whole existence had felt like one long quest for escape – escape from here, escape from there, escape to anywhere easier for him than this, whatever situation in which he found himself messing up at any given time. And death, of course, was the ultimate release from his worries, from himself.
Now he realised, fatally overdue, that, in truth, he’d only ever used death to try and understand life. He wanted to understand life, he wanted to live. He wanted to continue living. He wanted to be good at it. And, maybe, just maybe, he wanted simply to be good. But, here, in a cupboard in a bedroom in a house in Auchmead Road, Greenock, he discovered he was too late. Heat fled from Duncan’s body and the very last of the daylight drained from the room, seeped from his eyes. The now-gloomy room, the house, the town, the whole world, disintegrated before him, slipping from his grasp, or rather he from its hold.
It took a few months of renovation, but the house in Auchmead Road sold eventually and the proceeds passed, of course, to its owner, Juliet, widow to the man who’d been found dead there, one icy morning in early December, his body supine and rigid in an upstairs bedroom, eyes wide open and his skin as frozen as the Arctic itself, brittle fingers still clutching at the scratched and battered black metal casing of an ancient-looking but entirely empty box.
The coroner never determined a plausible explanation for Duncan’s death.
Understanding, in her quietly compassionate way, that neither Marian nor the baby were to blame – the one for her actions, the other for its very existence – Juliet split the profits of the sale equally with them.
Once again, a big hats off to Mark for this story. Mark's written a good few pieces for us now, he's pretty much a regular. But remember we're always on the lookout for new contributors to the blog, feel free to contact us.