There may come a point in your life when you’re sitting down somewhere quiet, and you begin to think about all of the people that you have ever loved. And then, for no apparent reason, it seems a good idea to start counting them. You probably set out thinking you’ll easily get into the tens, or at least a couple of handfuls. But you have to redefine the rules along the way because you’ve included your first three cats, and that’s cheating, so pets are excluded, seeing as they’re not real people per se. That knocks your number down somewhat. In fact, you have to start again from the beginning. Perhaps you can still count a few – maybe more – maybe even a whole lot more.
As for me – well, I range between zero and two, depending on how well my day is going.
And then you start to wonder about the defining moments in your life – plural, because there must have been so many, right? You start counting.
Here were mine, chronologically:
- First day at school. (the horror)
- First date. (the horror)
- Kiss. (ditto… but even worse)
- First holiday abroad. (wonderful – now there’s a pleasant surprise)
- Job. (ha! bring me back down why don’t you)
And then you realise that, like me, all you’re doing is making a list of memories – and if you’re luckier than me – the happy memories outnumber the bad.
But if you think about it harder; deeper, you’ll find the one moment – for I’m convinced that there is only one, it’s the one with a big arrow pointing right at it. It’s the day that everything before led up to, and everything after became shaped by.
This is mine.
I live in an apartment in the big sprawling city of London. (I use the word apartment because I don’t want to confuse you if you’re not from this country – I could have said a block of flats, but that just sounds odd to a lot of people; it looks even weirder written down – and besides, I picked up a lot of Americanisms early on in life – I’ll explain how in a moment.)
So, it’s a brown-bricked estate that stretches along the railway line – the green line on the tube map – the metro, if you prefer. There are seven blocks, each with ten apartments. There are two on each floor. I live on the first floor, (the one above ground,) in the end block nearest the creepy alley that takes you down to the River Thames. My bedroom is at the back; it overlooks the railway track, is shoebox small, and faces the direction that means the sun always misses it.
I am aged eleven.
My mother has a key on a dull silver link-chain that is always, and I really do mean always, dangling around her neck. It opens and locks my bedroom door. She locks me in at night. She always has – but don’t worry, it doesn’t feel wrong to me, even though she made me promise not to tell a living soul. I am, of course, aware that it’s a bit weird, but she has a good reason – we have good reason. And in case you’re wondering, I have a bucket in the corner if I need to pee during the night, but I’ve become pretty good at holding it in.
My mother’s armchair in the lounge-come-dining room she says is very comfortable. It’s got a button that makes it lean back when she wants to. She has a small picnic table by her side, covered with a patterned lace doily she says was her grandmother’s making. She watches films. We watch films. We never watch normal programmes. We never watch the news. We only watch DVDs.
What else can I tell you about the dining room? Well, there’s an oblong dining table that only gets used at Christmas when it becomes a circle, and a burgundy settee, that could, I suppose, be real leather, but the arms are peeling, most of which is from my picking at them. The shelves on the back wall are full of videocassettes that collect dust, and there are thick floral curtains that stay halfway between open and closed whatever time of day or year it is. And of course, there’s the telly.
We are watching ‘The Hunger Games.’ It’s that bit when the wasps with stings that can kill are about to attack the gang chasing Katniss hiding in the trees. She’s just got to cut through the branch with the nest on it. Mum, almost lying flat in her armchair, mumbles something or other, so I look over, but her eyes are closed; she’s fallen fast asleep. I’m feeling quite tired as well. And as I don’t like to disturb her, or rather, she can be a bit grouchy if I do, I turn the movie off and head off to bed. It’s not like I haven’t seen the film hundreds of times already. And Dad’s not home tonight anyway.
Last summer I collected a jam-jar full of bluebottles – flies; they’re all dead of course, they already were when I picked them up from the floor of the bin shed downstairs, but if I shake the jar, for a split second they look kind of alive, I like to pretend they’ve got deadly stingers too, just like in the film.
Some of the DVDs are ‘knock-off’; at least, that’s what mum calls them. There’s a guy comes around the estate selling all the latest Hollywood movies dirt-cheap. He’s Chinese I think, and doesn’t speak very good English, especially if he’s sold you a dud and you try to complain, but most of them work OK. Mum also has a collection of all the free ones from the weekend newspapers and magazines; the lady at the laundrette saves them up for her. She talks a lot at mum every Sunday morning when we’re there, blah, blah, blah she goes, telling her all the local gossip. Mum doesn’t like to hear it, but it doesn’t stop her getting told. Last month, she kept going on about the poor kid that was found murdered in the river, the second one this year.
When we watch a film, I always sit on the floor, closer to the screen. Mum sits in the chair, legs stretched out, or sometimes tucked in, and she snuggles under a stripy woollen blanket. There’s a bottle of clear liquid on the table she empties every night. I believed for a long time that it was water, like she told me. The kids at school corner me at playtime and say otherwise. They’re not my friends anymore.
Dad comes and goes; more goes than comes. He’s not my friend either, even though he tells me he’s my best friend. Sometimes I wake up in the night and he’s sitting at the end of my bed. Mum’s the only one with a key to my room. I know that she’s the only one allowed in here besides me, but…
Anyway… There’s an old air-raid shelter hidden under some hills just across from us. It’s overgrown with trees, thorny bushes and nettles, but I found the entrance. It was caked in mud and leaves, and looked as if it hadn’t been opened for years. I scraped the debris from the rusty-brown cover, and levered it up with the screwdriver I’d taken from under the kitchen sink. A sweet and sickly smell erupted in my face, expelled like the gasp of a trapped Egyptian King set free. The stench made me retch, but I was too curious to let that bother me. With one hand covering my mouth I leant over the opening. I could see nothing but black. I dropped in a twig and heard nothing back. I sifted through leaves and found a small stone. It landed with a sharp crack, and I could tell the hole wasn’t that deep, but it was definitely too far to jump into, and besides, I needed my torch to investigate further. So, I looked around, and pretty sure no one else had seen me, I covered it back up with twigs and leaves, pushing earth into the seal like I’d seen in that war film about the escape tunnels, and went home to scrub my hands. I must admit; I was a bit disappointed when I returned with a torch and looked in, it was just an empty concrete room of nothing. But it got me thinking.
I’m in bed. Tired, but can’t get to sleep. I hear the front door go. Mum must still be asleep in her chair. She hasn’t locked my door. This time I’m prepared. In my rucksack: a torch, screwdriver, makeshift rope made from an old sheet, and my jam jar of flies.
Not again, I keep repeating in my mind, never again. I grab the torch.
I’ve got the window open before he turns the handle. With the torch now in my mouth I shin down the drainpipe. It takes my weight easily. I reach the bottom and look up, his head’s sticking out from the window. Illuminated in the beam of torchlight he squints. But it’s not too high for him to jump. I start to run. There’s not much streetlight, and the few that work shine a dull yellow. I get enough of a start to hide behind parked cars. I can’t see him now either, but can sense he’s close. I creep towards the shelter, careful not to shine light everywhere. But I slip, a beam of light shines into the sky like Batman’s beacon, and I reckon he’s seen me. I make it to the shelter, prise open the lid, tie the makeshift rope to a tree and let it dangle down the shaft. I switch the torch off, and crouch in the bushes, waiting. Then I hear him approaching, whispering; blaming mum for not locking the door. ‘It’s her fault,’ he says, ‘it’s her job to protect you.’ He thinks I’m down there, inside the shelter. I can tell because his whispers sound like they’re in a cave. I turn on the light and see hands grabbing at the sheet; he’s nearly in. I rush over and with all I’ve got, stamp on his head. His hands loosen their hold, and he falls. There’s a crack, it’s not a loud crack, more like a boiled egg hit by the back of a spoon. I don’t know why, but then I shake up my jam jar and throw it in, the glass smashes and I wish they were deadly wasps inside, not dead bluebottles.
It’s gone quiet. I yank up the sheet, put the cover back, and hide it under a mulch of leaves and dirt.
It was the lady at the launderette who mentioned that it had been three months since he’d last struck, and though she hoped he was rotting in hell, the thinking was that he’d fled the country. She said that ‘when they catch him – and they will, hanging is too good for scum like that.’ She kept on shaking her head whilst repeating ‘those poor children… poor children.’ I think she then said a prayer, because she crossed herself three times.
This time, mum was listening.
Many years later they bulldozed the area to make way for a residents car park, the area had gone somewhat upmarket since I moved away. They found a skeleton in the rubble, made an I.D soon enough, and linked his DNA to five child murders. Of course they wanted to speak to me.
The officer told me that they could assume the sicko fell in and smashed his head open, and that he was probably looking for a hideout or some kind of torture chamber. He said that they weren’t sure how the entrance got sealed up, and that no one really needs to know now, do they?
As for me, I work in the health service; have done for over 25 years. I like to keep myself to myself, and I think everybody would think me a nice enough guy, regular, they might say. But I can’t be sure how I’d react if you hurt me… and one more thing – don’t expect me to trust you in a hurry.
***Lee Hamblin is from the UK. Since 2007 he has lived in Greece. Long ago, he produced music to dance to. He still prefers to spend his time indoors staring at screens. He’s had stories published with: Friction, Platform For Prose, STORGY, The Red Line, and was shortlisted for the BBC’s 2015 Opening Lines competition.
Follow him on Twitter: @kali_thea
***Photography courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito.***