Mark had been sitting on the top deck of a number ‘49’ bus when he looked down and saw the top of his own head. It had been raining that evening and Mark watched himself as he traced random patterns in the condensation on the window of the bus. He stared, uncomprehending, sure that he was imagining this, that he would blink or something and be back in his body, the body he was floating above. He felt he was watching a film, except this was real, as real as anything he had ever experienced.
…all around were these voices, whispering, murmuring. Yet the words that appeared in his mind were not heard, but felt, chalked up on the blackboard of his consciousness.
‘………..Your mother never loved you, Billy….’
Mark could see that there was a woman sat behind him, so large she took up an entire seat. To his left sat an old man with a red border terrier lying on his feet. The voices grew stronger. Static popped and crackled in his ears, but Mark could make out the words if he concentrated hard enough. It was like listening to a radio that was not quite tuned in.
‘….You belong to me, now…’
He was lightheaded, he was floating, slipping, falling into blackness. All he could hear was his own hoarse, ragged breathing and the blood thumping in his temple. The blackness became stable, his feet were on solid ground. He stood, momentarily disorientated and then, with one deep breath, he stepped forward, his hands held out in front of him.
The air was cool around him. Refreshing even. His shoulders brushed against rough concrete walls. Each foot step made a slight echo that reverberated along what seemd like a long, narrow passageway. From somewhere far away bird song followed him faintly into the blackness, the sound muffled and distorted as if he were underwater, yet before him was nothing but cold, black air. Mark took a step forward. And another, and another. And then his hands had come up hard against concrete and he expelled all his breath in a gasp of relief. There was nothing here; it was a dead end. Wherever he was, there was no-one and nothing here.
But as he stood there in the darkness, a thin sheen of perspiration on his face despite the cold air, he thought he could hear a whimper, a faint gurgling on the edge of his hearing. His left hand moved from the pitted surface of the concrete in front of him, to his side and found smooth, brushed steel. A door.
And then, on the other side of the door, there was another whimper. A murmur that grew into the sound of crying, a baby crying, and then countering it, a woman’s voice, soft and comforting. ‘Hush, Billy, hush.’
Further down was a handle and then his knuckles barked against something hard and heavy that nonetheless moved. His fingers discovered a large padlock that hung open from its hasp. He fingered curiously, and then jumped as it slipped from his grasp to clang against the steel door.
The whimpers stopped immediately. Mark stood still, crazy shapes and colours dancing on the margins of his sight as he stared into nothing. He felt the blackness sucking him in and then there came a faint slap from beyond the door. Then came another, and into Mark’s head came the image of his grandmother, her slippers slip slapping against her kitchen lino. Again it came, and then there was a metallic grinding at the door.
For a second he had the sense of being connected with something else, a fleeting sensation of another mind touching his, and then he was back in his body. He found himself gazing down at damp finger tips and realised he had missed his stop. He climbed unsteadily to his feet and found a child sitting beside him; an infant he had tried to forget about for almost two decades.
William gazed at Mark with calm blue eyes, podgy legs dangling from the seat.
Mark was sure William had not been there when he had boarded the bus. And he was sure of that because for William to have been there, no, wait, for William to be here now, one thumb rammed into his mouth, a thin drool slipping down his chin, would mean that time had stood still for eighteen years.
William gazed into Mark’s eyes, there was a musty smell, damp, as if of being underground and then William was gone and the old man with the dog was staring at him, bemused and concerned.
“You alright, mate?”
Mark fled at those words, tripping over the border terrier. Its yelps pursued him as he stumbled off the bus.
He had no memory of getting home. He sat on his unmade bed and tried to understand what had happened. He had just taken a normal bus journey home, he started to tell himself……
……and hovered against the ceiling of the bus, just over the heads of the passengers below.
That was mental. Crazy. If a friend had told him about this, he would have thought that they had taken a little too much acid. But Mark had never touched drugs; his upbringing had been so straight laced that it made the Quakers look like a synonym for hedonism. It was only from that day he began to drink, so that he would no longer see William. He was terrified of that little boy, for reasons buried deep in the sludge of his unconscious. Where he wanted them to stay.
So instead he went to his doctor and explained he thought he was having a breakdown. The doctor took Mark’s pulse and looked into his eyes with some kind of flashlight. When he had finished Mark asked what he thought was wrong.
“Nothing,” the doctor replied. “Nothing at all. You’re absolutely fine.”
“But the bus? What happened there?”
The doctor looked at him for a moment. He closed the cardboard file and then getting up, carefully placed the folder in the filing cabinet by the door. Mark felt the doctor’s hand come down on his shoulder, and flinched. But the doctor’s voice was gentle as he said, “This is more in the line of, say, a priest, than mine.”
Mark sat for a few moments, thinking before he rose and quietly left. He only knew one priest and he was sure as hell was not going to talk to him.
Mark tried to forget the incident. He knew it had happened; he just preferred to ignore it. He managed to push William Matthews into one of the cellars of his mind. There William sat like an infantile Mrs Rochester, safe behind a bolted door. One Mark was determined to keep closed. Yet at the subconscious level, where the bad things grow, he was afraid. So when he reached his flat that evening he made sure that each window and door was securely locked. Then he sat down to stare the long night out.
It was close to midnight when Mark, dragged by a fascinated terror from his sleepless bed, finally twitched aside his curtains to see a small child standing in the middle of the road, oblivious to the traffic that hurtled alongside him. William Matthews gazed up at him with blue eyes set deep within cherubic cheeks, and Mark felt nausea swim in his gut. The cellar door had been well and truly busted open. Mrs Rochester was on the loose and amassing kindling.
The next day Mark drove to work; he didn’t want to risk another …., he struggled for the right words to explain what he had experienced on the bus and then gave up. Besides, he had finally got his car back from the garage yesterday. Something to do with the alternator, the mechanic had said. He would need a new one sooner or later, Mark thought, but right now there was no way he could afford it. For now, patching up and offering a small prayer to the gods of the road seemed the way forward.
It was towards the end of his shift when Mark rubbed sleep deprived eyes, looked up at the clock and felt his chest tighten. Another half an hour and his shift would end. Then it would be time to go back to his flat, back to where William waited for him.
Mark looked around the room that suddenly seemed so appealing. When the charity he worked for had bought the house they had knocked through the living room and dining room to make one large communal area. The décor was beige and cream, bland and sterile. The TV was blaringly loud; it had to be for Liz who was partly deaf. John, eighty-six and with the mind of a small child conducted an imaginary orchestra as he listened to his iPod. Warren sat on the sofa beside him, staring into space.
“Hey Warren,” Mark said softly. Warren turned those dead eyes upon him for a moment and then back to the wall. Mark had no idea what, if anything had passed through Warren’s mind just then. His job title was support worker, but often he felt more like a parent. Without him to cook and clean, to wake them up in the morning and to put them to bed, to give their medication, these people could simply not live. But Mark felt no satisfaction; this job was a penance.
‘Penance’. Mark frowned. That was a strange choice of words. Penance for what? True, he wasn’t perfect but he hadn’t done anything particularly awful. Had he? He shook his head as if to clear it, as if to shake loose the question that he didn’t want to answer, but even so, a vague and formless guilt rose within him. Rising he padded his way to the tiny office under the stairs. As he opened the door one of the cards that stood on every surface of the office fluttered from the filing cabinet. Mark read its inscription as he bent to pick it up. ‘We are both so grateful for what you do for our son.’
He kept all the cards he received. But no matter how many cards he collected from grateful relatives, no matter how much love he cascaded down onto those in his care, he still felt like a fraud. Atonement could not be earned through good works, apparently. Sometimes he wanted to stand in the middle of the street and scream this nameless, unknowable guilt he felt. But instead he took a slow, deep breath, sat down, and started to gather together the papers that littered the office desk, filing the interminable paperwork for the disability benefits the clients claimed. This was the part of the job he hated, the part that he usually left until last but he was quickly learning problems did not simply go away.
As if to prove this, William was standing outside Mark’s block of flats the following night. Mark watched William as he wandered around the overgrown courtyard, small feet scuffing against the debris of city life. Mark knew that the main doors to the flats were always locked, but still he was afraid.
That fear was there when he woke after a troubled night’s sleep. It rumbled in his gut all through the next day, from when he left his flat to when he arrived at work. It was there in the evening when he stood at the window of his studio flat. He leant forward from behind the curtains, scanning the road below. His shoulders were tense and aching; occasionally the muscles in the hand that gripped the shabby curtain went into a brief spasm of anxiety. No matter how hard he looked, the street was empty, and Mark then knew that William Matthews was in the building. That night he sat, staring sightlessly into the darkness, listening to William climb the stairs, one slow step at a time. Though the staircase was on the other side of the tower block, with innumerable concrete walls between them, he heard each of William’s soft footfalls, his gentle breathing, his nails clicking against the metal banister.
Mark crouched with his ear pressed to the door of his own flat, waiting. He knew that he was imagining all of this. William could not have remained a toddler for almost eighteen years; whatever had happened to him, that was not possible. Mark slipped down to the floor, his back against the wooden slats of the door. He did not believe in ghosts, did not believe in anything that was not hard, scientific fact but at the same time he had to believe in what he saw. Which was impossible if you believed in the laws of time and space, of common bloody sense.
Then, as if on cue, a soft, caressing breath came through the keyhole, sweetly foul. It was cold with the darkness of subterranean prison, of depths and then Mark heard one small knuckle, tap, tap, tap, against the door and he wept. He wept for William Matthews and what he must have suffered, wept for the long wasted years, but above all Mark wept for himself.
Daybreak found Mark, hollow eyed, climbing into his car with the clear knowledge that he had to find out what had happened to William. The past had come back to haunt him, and to exorcise it, he needed to confront it.
He wound out through the narrow streets of suburban Manchester to the motorway and headed south, the miles slipping past with glorious ease at this time of the morning. He drove, his fingers white as he hunched over the steering wheel. He was heading south back to Wantsum.
He was heading home.
I hope you have enjoyed the first chapter of my novel. Please click on the image to check out the whole book.
Mark only believes in what he sees. He certainly believes in Brendan Douglas who rammed a shot gun in his mouth and told him never to come back to ‘The Hedgerows’.For eighteen years Mark kept his promise. But then he began to see the ghost of a small child who had disappeared all those years ago and Mark then knew he had to find the courage to confront his past.