Catch up...Part One Part Two
Momentarily, Duncan stood amazed and stared, both bemused and petrified by the sudden, inexplicable movement of the armchair.
He turned to place the tumbler on the drainer.
When he turned back, the armchair had moved again. It was now approximately where it had been before. Duncan walked timidly to it. He must have imagined it. He must be more exhausted than he realised. All this worry, all this disturbance – no bloody wonder he’d hallucinated or simply suffered a trick of the light. Any more of this kind of thing and he might, in the morning, take a walk up to the surgery on Burns Road. A few pills might put him right. He stepped back from the armchair, ignoring the dirty marks on the carpet now showing on one side of each of the casters, and turned on the television.
There was no picture. The reception was terrible. In a strange way, Duncan was relieved to turn it off. He felt unnerved as it was, preferring a silent house to one in which the TV might muffle or disguise any noise coming from elsewhere within its walls.
Chinese food and whisky calmed him. It took only half an hour for Duncan to pretty much forget the events he’d experienced, or at least to have put them to the back of his mind along with a mental note to find a rational explanation for them some other time. Whatever the cause, it would be better left until morning when the curtains could be opened, the house flooded again with natural light, and the outside world – grim as it was in Larkfield – seen from within.
He opened his laptop to work on Cantus Arcticus. In truth, he could understand the agent’s criticisms, especially regarding the eponymous story. Although possessing a vague and abstract knowledge of the paranormal and parapsychological research into why people believe in supposedly supernatural phenomena, Duncan had really always used ghost and horror stories more as a means by which to try and understand the nature of death and loss. Maybe, at some level, this had something to do with Mum and Janet dying as young as they had, with them being snatched from him so soon. Maybe he had always felt guilt for that, after all. As much as he had always – and still did – blame Dad, perhaps the old man had been on to something when he’d said that Duncan could and should have been there to help. This wasn’t something Duncan allowed himself to think about very often.
And it wasn’t something he was going to allow himself to dwell on now. Really what he wanted to think about were the central themes he’d been struggling with. The story concerned a man dying at the South Pole and later haunting his scientist-explorer colleagues. A revenge tale, the characters were unpleasant, and all would suffer the consequences of their behaviour. Duncan had notions that there must be some kind of gap between life and death: it wasn’t simply a case of being one thing or the other. There must be a transitional stage: a dark, mysterious, opaque sort of expanse, perhaps, like the sea, like the Arctic, through which one must pass to the other side – to true death. Hadn’t he just witnessed this with his own father – with Dad’s strange descent and bewildering journey from the clarity of this world to a realm of existence only he could see but which he couldn’t aptly communicate? Killed off in hideously graphic detail at the start of the tale, Duncan’s protagonist would become caught and trapped within this middle-land, condemned to haunt his colleagues until they righted the wrongs that led to his death in the first place.
Duncan’s other notions were vaguely spiritual. He’d never been particularly religious himself – or, rather, he had always avoided and resisted any form of organised practice. But he was fascinated by the faith of others, particularly – as a young student of literature – by biblical descriptions of heaven and hell, light and darkness. It seemed to Duncan that true light – the true eternal light promised Christians – was darkness. Light is a temporary phenomenon of the universe. It burns out. It will all burn out, eventually. Similarly, true unending warmth must be the eternal chill of the universe. If there really were a god, God must flip human expectations – they must learn, or be taught, to embrace the cold darkness of infinity in the life to come.
Wrangling and struggling with such thoughts, Duncan felt he was on to something. It was all a matter of explaining them properly, and as interestingly as possible within the narrow confines of a short story.
He worked for an hour, then found he needed to check a fact on the Internet. For the last fortnight, he’d been logging into a neighbour’s account, but this seemed to have disappeared tonight. Perhaps it was the weather. The rain was heavier than ever. He listened to the sound of water lashing down, then set the laptop aside and refilled his glass.
There really was no other word for it. That was the sound – a short, sharp crack that echoed from within the kitchen. Rushing through, staggering slightly from the whisky, Duncan discovered an open back door and a cupboard door swinging to and fro in the breeze. He locked the door and closed the cupboard. The explanation for this was simple enough – he hadn’t closed the old door firmly enough after taking out rubbish to the bin.
But walking back into the living room his eyes alit on the carpet beneath Dad’s armchair. He could ignore it no longer. Those rings of dirt beneath the casters were larger than before – dirt the wheels had covered for years. The armchair had shifted again, of this he was certain.
In his slightly drunken state, this was more than he could bear. He had no thought of leaving – booze had emboldened him. Nonetheless, he couldn’t put up with much more of this. If the chair was shifting of its own accord, it was time for Duncan to shift it somewhere he couldn’t see it. The furniture must go.
It took two hours or more, and what the neighbours must have thought – assuming they’d watched him from their windows – he couldn’t imagine. But there it stood in the garden. All of it, save the sofa, the kitchen table and, upstairs, the bed he slept in. The lawn couldn’t be seen for what remained of his father’s furniture. Returning indoors, shivering from the icy driving rain more than from fear, and pumped with a sense of exhausted accomplishment, Duncan pulled tight the door once more and settled back on the sofa with the bottle, the glass, and a reluctance to think too deeply about the events of the evening.
He decided to get drunk. It still felt strange to drink whisky in a house where alcohol – due to Wee Free grandparents he never met – was largely frowned upon. Mum never drank, Dad rarely. Breaking the unwritten rules of the house, Duncan’s slight sense of guilt kicked up the ghosts again, memories stirring within his mind – Mum, the winter’s day she bought brandy to lace the Christmas pudding, then poured away the rest so nobody else would ever finish it for less wholesome purposes. Janet, lovely Janet, laughing over the solitary can of McEwan’s left out for Santa (in reality, Dad’s Christmas treat), and the smell of stale beer in the living room the following morning, an exotic and not altogether likeable aroma that hung over the presents, lingering like a strange and somewhat fearful visitor. Dad rubbing his forehead when he came downstairs. They didn’t know it then, but, for such a rare drinker, this sole can would have given him a hangover.
Actually, Duncan could only remember his father getting drunk on one occasion – and it was an occasion he’d recalled again only recently. It had happened in about 1996, the year after Dad had his heart scare. Duncan had come across from Stirling to visit him. He hadn’t wanted to, but felt he ought. He’d surprised Dad. The old man was unusually unsteady on his feet when he opened the door to his son, and then Duncan had realised why. Down the side of the armchair sat six cans of Tennant’s lager. Not a vast amount, by any means, but, of course, it wouldn’t have taken much to get Dad pissed.
And that was the night Dad told Duncan about the war – again. Much of it was stuff Duncan had already heard during his visits of the last year. But one thing caught his imagination. Dad, slurring slightly, veered into a sad diversion. It hadn’t made a lot of sense, but the story seemed to involve a stop his ship had made at some far-flung Scandinavian port in early 1945. Duncan couldn’t remember the name. If he’d had the Internet tonight, he could have checked.
The story concerned a box Dad had taken care of for a Norwegian sailor. He’d only been asked to mind it for the evening, while Dad’s colleagues and their Norwegian counterparts got wasted in a bar. However, for some mysterious reason he couldn’t quite explain, Dad never returned this mysterious box. He made out he kept hold of it, taking it back on board his own ship (the last on which he would serve before the end of the war) by mistake. But something about his tone of voice, and the unexpected nature of the anecdote, led Duncan to suspect there was more to it than that.
Dad said the sailor told him the box came from far further north, from the forests of Finland, no less – the land of the mystic Sami, within the Arctic Circle itself. He seemed to rue very deeply his decision to keep it. Was Duncan right to sense that the Norwegian sailor would’ve been extremely angry to lose it?
“She never knew. I never – well, I never showed no one.” Dad avoided using Mum’s name. Even on an evening of such unexpected honesty and candour between father and son, Dad knew certain boundaries shouldn’t be crossed. “Tried to return it, before it was too late. Then tried to get shot of it,” he continued.
What the box contained or where he’d put it, he never elaborated, even in the depths of intoxication.
Duncan’s curiosity had been piqued further by the old man’s reluctance to speak again on the subject – firstly, next morning, when he had a raging headache, and then later, when he’d clearly had time to regret mentioning it at all. Duncan had wondered greedily where it was stored, and how he might go about locating it.
Nine years had passed. Duncan never had found anything, but the memory rose again to his mind a day or so after Dad gave his weird warning about the box Duncan should bury.
“Apples ... but not apples. The box with apples in it that aren’t apples ... bury it. It’ll save your life.”
As soon as Duncan connected the old story with this command, he tried to talk to Dad about it, but the old man refused – he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk of it again.
A wee bit pissed himself, Duncan began to ponder. What could this box contain? And, more excitingly, would it be valuable? There was really very little left in the whisky bottle and Duncan realised he would struggle to climb the stairs if he finished it tonight. Screwing on the lid, he took the bottle and glass to the kitchen. Wind now howled around the house as the storm peaked, rain running furiously from every gutter and teeming down the windows.
Turning off each light as he passed through the house, he began to make his way upstairs, not registering the fading smile of his father in a cheap, plastic picture frame hanging on an old nail in the wall.