December 3rd, 2020
Knaresborough House5. Break Face‘Spare me the niceties,’ he muttered, as the guards roughed him down at the door. ‘There’s no need for that,’ grunted the woman who was waving a long black metal detector across his chest and arms. The device beeped twice, the same tone the old washing machine used to make at home when, at three in the morning, it would sporadically decide to finish its cycle. Mack’s floor above the kitchen ceiling would do little to muffle the crazed appliance’s bleating as it begged to be opened, the pressure inside too much for its eighties heart. Mack would lie awake, his jaw and hands trembling from the cold that seemed to seep out from his body itself. Curse you, washing machine, he would mutter through chattering teeth, though I am grateful for thy service. In the morning light though shalt not resemble the screeching demon that, in my quaking heart, I know thou art not, though thou seemest now to be, such a din of demonic choral song dost thou now whine. A particularly ghoulish episode of Doctor Who would have kept him up in any case, there would be no chance of him getting any sleep with the image of a gas-mark clad child softly entering the room from the landing door, which stood slightly ajar. Mack knew, on some level, that it had been left that way by his dad. The shout with which he’d announced his departure still rang in the room hung with posters alternately showing roaring footballers and their scantily clad wives. The stick-swinging argumentative type finished with their god-sent duties and went about on their merry way, no doubt to harass a group of strange-looking folk standing by one of the exhibits. The circle of seven or eight had just arrived at what looked like a clay head that had been heavily trodden on by a neo-classical giant wearing steel-toed modernist boots. The grey-haired witch doctors were all swaying, gently forwards and back on the heels of their dirty grey waders, a uniform dragged through some dingy gutter and sagging on their skeletal frames. All in all, Mack was quite repulsed by the druidic gathering, he thought it unseemly, and though he couldn’t make out their faces, he knew them all to be horribly old and warted, begging leeches on his own begging back. Security guards were converging on the ritual’s position from all around the gallery, slowly cornering the mumblers who seemed to take no notice of anything or anyone, save their guttural, whispered song, and the unfortunate footwear they surrounded. This is typical, thought Mack, remembering the strict instructions he’d been advised to follow in sickly friend-like tones. Avoid all situations that may cause undue stress, they’d said. Don’t over-excite yourself, they’d said. Where do you feel most relaxed, they’d asked. I dunno, he’d shrugged, itching his patchy beard. At the gallery, I suppose, he’d said. His peace and quiet having been so immediately and strangely ruined, Mack decided to go whole hog and get in thick with whatever was about to happen. Memories of being hoisted up on the bar to watch the coming together of drunk bullhorns came swimming into his anti-vision, curling up like the smoke that fumed out the pub where he’d been buoyed up. In the midst of the shouting, and the smells, and the music blaring, and the chairs scraping and crashing, a toothy wide-single-eyed face swung close to his, very close, too close. No vuse shraggling the wall, it had said, guttering, you’ll only fend up bith numb balls, and off he went, to get in thick. That bar-side, bar-baited philosophy had stuck with boy Mack, shaped him as he grew into the fine figure of a man that now strode purposefully across the marble floors of an age-old institution, ready to find, make, or cause a mess. The humming finally stopped only when physical contact was made, not by Mack, though he was itching to get involved, but by one impressively ratty guard whose lips, ears, nostrils and pupils were disproportionately diminutive given the enormity of his gnashers which were widely displayed as he snarled his way up to the chanting miscreants with an undeserved swagger. After a few disregarded warnings, and a rapidly decreasing angle between his thick black brows, a hand, claw-like and dirty-nailed, shot out from a damp sleeve and grasped the arm of one passive crooner, his finger vices pressing into the extra flesh that hung from a well-worn frame. The jolt of the shattered hymn startled Mack, the silence unearthly as the whole group uniformly muzzled and turned to survey their intruder. The grip remained. Silence remained. The grip remained. The tone was changing. The room was shifting. Perhaps the lights dimmed and reddened. Incense in the air, maybe. All of Mack’s pinging senses had been tuned to recognise the beginnings of what, three agonisingly still seconds later, began. Gladiatorial combat ensued, as made popular by the eponymous film staring Russel Crowe. Instinct pounded through Mack’s veins as the beautiful noise found his twitching ears. Dodging and weaving, the outsider hopped his aching balls off the wall and entered the fray, which was already twelve-combatants deep by the time he’d scurried the intervening distance and launched a hook over the back of one bent-double guard squarely into the mouth of another. The connection was good and he felt that feeling, that glorious smacking, bruising feeling that he first knew on a freezing cold January morning out on the school playing field. In his uniform short, tough shorts, and his uniform inverted navy sweater he shivered, distanced as far as possible from the mud and sweat that was scrummaging further afield. Just as he was beginning to congratulate himself on having escaped what could have been an untimely death at the hands of one of the monstrous boys who was currently braying in the centre of the pack, the ball spun clear of the swamp and was caught by a flying arrow of a boy who came pelting down the line towards him. Yells from his teammates and red-faced teacher came floating across the frosty grass but he heard no words, heard nothing in fact, save the breath that left him when he collided with, or by with was collided, something heavier than he was. In the changing rooms the others stood round with reverence and awe. How’d you do it, Mack, one had asked, how’d you bring him down. The skinny boy said nothing, wiped the blood from his unstaunched nose and smiled. Something had awoken that day.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale