Knaresborough House1. The PackageThe drawn out lawns and carefully raked drive, an imposing manor rising out of the hillside, with a grand balcony overlooking the forecourt, where visitors would stream through in their dozens, calling to each other and whooping with glee as the afternoon faded and the evening’s curtain swept open. A festive spirit in the air, and the warmth of the great estate calling out like a beacon, a fierce glow that promised haven amongst the chill, cutting through the darkening night till Spring’s calm rose spreads across the thinning white. In the morning the guests are driven away, for their own amusement, waving sheepishly from the windows and burying their shame in thick scarves and gloves. A man stands watching from the roadside, as the Lady of Knaresborough Manor looks out from the balcony, surveying the land she owns, the people she controls, the world she dictates from where she stands. This fucking lock, he thought, and swore twice out loud giving the door a shove. He was careful to put his weight on the wooden half, imagining the glass part cracking under his hand, the larger shards splintering on the floor, the smaller sinking into his palm. He saw the blood drip down and wailed in pain, hunched over in the mid-afternoon drizzle. A car stopped on the road beside him and someone jumped out, phone in hand dialling 999, asking if he’s okay. He kept screaming, clutching at his wrist as the glass he had unwittingly grasped went skidding blood soaked from his hand. The key clicked and he went in. The street was empty save the rain, and overhead the clouds were immutable. Footsteps were pinging down the stairs as he stepped into the atrium, rain dripping off his coat and trailing off into a dark corner where it muddled with some blackish mud that had been collecting since the weather had turned. A burble rose from the murky darkness. Probably something living in there, thought Mack, a large toad or some hitherto undiscovered eel that feeds on earwigs and shit. He saw it slithering out on its deformed legs, spreading its filthy slime trail across the concrete as it sought a rank pile of illness to drown in. The footsteps stopped, there was someone at the first landing, looking down on Mack, who met their gaze. They looked down on him. They thought they knew this man. What a poor figure they must have thought. They had peeled back his top layer and found the empty corpse of a brainless or braindead man. Lips curled, nose turned up, they took a deep breath, fearful of contagion, and swiftly went by. Mack held the door open. They muttered some thanks and Mack replied that it was no trouble at all, watching the disappointment trail out in a cloud of memory stirred from after work gym sessions to shmooze and booze. A package had arrived the week before, and without a flat number sat in the entrance way under the boxes until Mack, curious as a robin, took pity on the damp sod and brought it up to 704 for inspection. On the seventh floor he stopped to breath, leaning against the hard concrete wall for support. Footsteps approached, an intruder? He looked for cover. Rows of doors presented themselves like imposing monoliths, giant stone beacons harkening back to an older time, when the races of the earth were intertwined by their common nature, when simple life forms built pleasing monuments to the sky and were welcomed into the cult of earth to be tossed about on its heaven-gazing seas for eternity, giddily awaiting the day their hard work is rewarded by eternal, eternal, eternal wonder. Where was that promise now, where was his saviour in this, his hour of need, between the lift door and the rows of others, in the empty, spinning corridor no angel appeared, and no devil either. The flat was dirty and cold, with none of the homely comforts he had imagined when moving into his own space. He had pictured a candle-lit dinner with his neighbours gathered round. Trish and Harvey are there, with a girl from the local sixth form college to look after little Fred. Liam from 702 has made two salads, one with feta, one with nuts. Pat has come from over the hall with extra chairs and Conor has brought his puppy up from the fifth floor to great cooing from the youngsters,Sally and Joe, who are newly moved in, fresh eyed with the amorations of young love. Sam can’t make it, apologies from her partner, she’s working late at the hospital. Liam shakes his head, the hours those nurses put in astounds me. Martin and Laura talk about the new play park being built in the green over the road. Martha opens wine and pours glasses for everyone. None for me, says Harvey with a sigh, and Trish smiles, it’s a long road. Everyone finds their space, though there is little, and starts handing dishes around, stews and curries and spiced potatoes, warm bread, and steaming rice, Liam’s salads and a surprise winner from Pat. it’s all about fresh ingredients she laughs as Martin celebrates her spicy sauce by drizzling it across his mountain of food. At the heart of it all Mack sat staring bleakly out, the sounds of festivity fading into a steady drip from the tap in the toilet where the tape had rotted and worn away. The package from downstairs was on the table, a thin line of cloudy water pooling around one corner. Was it leaking? He tentatively prodded the corner, it was soft. Damp cardboard peeled away at his touch and he turned his nose up in revulsion. Things that were soft and wet, they disgusted him, his fingertips tingled with an internal itch, the back of his neck sprung into shivering life and he rolled his head back, opening his mouth wide, shaking off the jitters running up and down his spine.2. Ultimate ShameHunching down he surveyed the pile of mud that gleamed, moist on the rug. The earth was thick with clay, stodgy, yet uncompromising. With the leathery finger of his left hand, hanging on the spade with his right, he poked the soft mush that bounced back, doughy. Straightening up he examined the stain which coated his fingertip up to the big knuckle, it was all under his nail, dark and, stodgy, he thought again, that was the word. Should I suck it off? Probably better not, could be rotten. He looked around for a towel or cloth and finding none that weren’t already stuffed into plaster holes or wrapped around pipes, he brought his hand to himself and drew the sodden mess across his chest in a line that split his lungs in twain, tailing off at the hip and then going up and down a few times on the back pocket of his trousers. He examined his finger again, the mass of lumpy soil below forgotten for a while as he picked the clods from under the nail, using at first the opposing nail of his right thumb, then the jagged ridge of his bottom teeth, sliding an incisor back and forth, chewing on the clumps then spitting them back onto the pile. There it was, his latest display of seething romance, the left-over part of something unhealthy which had spiralled in through the door of a nightclub six months earlier and left sharing a taxi that night, looking for all this world and others, like the picture of a perfect marriage, but covered in sweat and sick with drink that they emptied in the morning light as they rolled over the road into bed. The pile of earth was all that remained and now it was time to be destroyed, to be dissolved and clinically disposed of, lest the seed of a plant come in through the window, though they were rarely or never open, and deposit its goodness in that unholy soil to grow like a nightmare vine, its roots spreading across the living room floor, out into the hall and down to the ground. From there they would puncture the crust of the Big Earth and drill into the planet till they found the hot core and suck it up, all up, till the warmth was gone, and then what would fuel the volcanoes and gas vents that blew up under the sea? How could he go out then, he thought, into the natural disaster-less world? How could he show his face with the weight of that God-like responsibility, knowing that the lives of every soul on the Pacific’s edge had been guaranteed by him from his dusty red rug. There were people out there begging for their parents to die, for neighbouring village to be be brought down in flames, there were terrible souls who made money on the destruction caused by the gas clouds in the atmosphere. How could he face them, those poor hearts whose lives he had wrecked or at least put on hold by saving the world from lava and sulphuric rain? What shame he thought, what unending, unparalleled shame, he believed, what Ultimate Shame to be the never-ending hero of a world that dripped slowly on his face from the sky with millions of balled up paper balls, wet with the spittle of God. ‘No,’ he said ‘no.’ Paused, ‘no,’ again. The smell of his Ultimate Shame grew stronger as he watched a creature of buzzing unimportance fidget its way over to the remaining mud, circling the fuming mess a few times then settling. He could see the eggs that crawled out of the things anus, maggots with a hundred legs that were already big enough to chew on the Shame as it sat there, undisturbed since the blade had come down once, then again, and again, and again, and split the thing. The smell had begun at once and haunted his every step, dogging his nostrils from before he woke till he left to clear his head in the great outdoors, coughing and retching to help the air flow. It was time to despatch the memory, the thing, the memory of the thing, together they would tumble from his world and with a damp thump make food for lesser creatures in the park below. The lice will crawl from the bag and end up tangled in the sinews of the thing, replacing it slowly and steadily with themselves in bundles of eggs and gnawed flesh, sacks of gunk and the memories chewed into new life, new memories made on the floor in a bag let drop from the seventh floor. Outside, sirens, the recored sounds of tortured children wailing back into the world from a boombox strapped to a golf buggy where two large pork sausage wannabes drove, sniggering their giddy success into a tannoy. In the back sat the forlorn figure of the last freedom fighter, pulled down from the statue or up from the gutter and tied up with strings of chipolatas, a ham hock stuffed in their mouths. Mack watched the lights flashing around a corner, the sound whooping into the ears of another watching from the seventh floor of another. He looked down from the roost and the glowing bag stared back, the supermarket logo clearly visible amongst the foliage which reflected nothing save the deepest greens. He shut the window. His shame was finished, guilt resolved, and the breath that left him was a gushing waterfall of relief. It is gone he spat through clamped teeth, feeling at his belt the gauntlet he had himself throw down upon entering the room that morning, the guzzling demons buzzing through the musty air. Somewhere next door or on another level some music began to play, he could hear the bass of it, pulsing through the floors and walls of the rooms around him. It is gone, he sighed, the shame, the shame, the Ultimate Shame, it is gone, it is gone, it is gone.3. A Sliding ScaleThe doors were closing as he came off the escalator and he made a half-hearted attempt to get to the train in the vain hope of someone sticking out an arm. He heard the hissing, the beeping then saw the door bumping against their arm, as the man frantically gestured, come on mate, hop on. Something about them, tall, bearded, with a handsome swathe of black curls tumbling to just above his shoulders, something unusual, in a way he liked. This was no clogged up coffee whore sucking on the corporate breast, spewing his mental head life into the galactic pot so he could buy a car and drive it. This was a human of the realm he had recognised once, the smiling with your eyes sort who said things worth listening to and meant them, having considered them for more them half a second before letting the storm of outrage and incredulity come steaming forth like the mile and half of unstoppable freight gunning down the highway of intellectual conversation crushing under its immense heat and weight any semblance of heart-to-heart, or just a friendly nod and a how are ya that didn’t make him feel for his kidneys to check they weren’t already on the market table. This man was, actually, now he’s up close, breathing his hot musky scent into Mack’s eyes and causing the already weak knees to become further undone, he is, what might be called, beautiful. Beautiful, he thought, feeling the word roll around and sing in his otherwise cavernous mind, I haven’t thought of anything as beautiful in a while. Tearing his eyes from the God-send who had pulled him from the shadows he threw a cursory glance over the carriage inhabitants and there he saw a congregation come to worship, on their knees, swaying with the rhythm of their lullabies that rollicked over the train’s canter, leaping and falling with the beat of the tunnel’s twists, turning now and gliding then, a song mustered from a deep place of pure admiration. The platform hummed for a while as the train slid away into the darkness, and then, with a rattle, was quiet. Mack wandered the length of broad tiles, mind off the banner ads that sold Social Connectivity and Mortgage Trust Associates. The woman on the train pursued him like a city-suited shadow. The intensity of her gaze bored into him still, mixing with the tail-lights of the train, a tie-wearing grime reaper with blazing pupils like an eclipse. Purple was in, he noticed, not reading any of the text. Last year it was light blue. He kept walking, taking in the promises as they screamed at him, in their silent way, to consume themselves at his tyrannical bidding, throwing themselves helplessly at the boots he wore to pace the throne room. Courtiers trembled as the strangers flung themselves to the floor in their placid purple tunics, their fingers outstretched to him in a wordless cry. He looked down on them, snarled, lifted his mighty sword from where it leant against his throne, and swung it high above his head to come screaming down on the necks of these false prophets, firelight glinting on the blade’s broad edge. At the last second he relented and let them scurry back into the shadows, a pack of drooling dogs straining at their leads. When he turned back to his throne a flash of colour caught his eye and he looked into the rafters, to where hung the body of his mortal enemy, strung up over the aisle as a reminder of his ruthlessness. Blood spattered across the light blue of his embroidered puffs, that still glinted with secret gold. On his throne again he surveyed his court with a satisfied glee, but what he didn’t see was the wool being spun in his own halls, the quiet whispers of the drapers and milliners as they were handed a new blend, a deep, rich, placid purple, spun into all the king’s clothes, his linen braies and stockings, his girdle, his woollen shirts, his cowls and cloaks, even into the fabric of his crown, which now he wore, blissfully unaware of the seeping, insidious mauves and violets that had wormed their way through the court. Another train came and he let it go too, full. The board turned over to six minutes, and he found a bench to rest his grateful body, which sagged against the wall, the package on the bench beside him. He looked at it, sitting there, unassuming, disinterested, rude. Perhaps he was on the wrong path, the fates had split him a bad route and the simplest solution would be to simply sling the wretched thing into the path of the next train, turn from the inevitable debris and let the sliding stairs carry him away from the world, sailing up into the fresh afternoon with a smile. Perhaps though, this was the only option, carrying on that is. Perhaps, he thought, there was no solution, and he would spend the rest of his days caught in a circle of dreams, the box and he, turning, turning together forever, two best friends, the box and he. Will you be my bride, he wondered, and the box replied, no. Apologies, it whimpered, but my heart belongs elsewhere, and besides, you haven’t got a ring. What do you call this then, he jeered, pulling the diamond from the breast pocket of his waistcoat, and standing to kneel, presenting the jewel in a princely manner. The shock of the sudden proposal was evident on the face of the other whose cheeks radiated a scarlet embarrassment, tinged with the heat of desire. Will you be mine, he asked, of course, they replied. All smiles he leant forwards and carefully slipped the ring onto their outstretched finger. The thing slipped on with ease, but not perfectly, in fact, not well, not well at all. It doesn’t fit, said the other. I can get it changed, said he. Why doesn’t it fit, asked the other. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking, he replied. Then, with tears streaming down their whitening cheeks, they tugged the loose ring from their finger, and tossed it to the edge. Mack dove to the cliff’s end but just as he was about to leap down for it he heard the ominous rumble of the oncoming thunderstorm and fell back from the precipice, the dizzying fall spinning away as the train slid squealing into the platform.4. Poison5. 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.6. Alfie‘Cheers, Mack.’ So. It was a different sort of instinct all together then. ‘Fuck’s sake, Alf.’ The guard grimaced, ‘You know this scum?’ ‘Scum?’ Outrage from the bloodied woman, ‘Scum? Who you calling- You hear that Mack?’ ‘For fuck’s sake, Alf!’ Mack was angry now, now he thought about it. Now he really set his broiling mind to the task at hand, that task being working out what the fuck was going on and why his little bitch of a baby sister was standing, bloody nosed, grinning like a smart goon, in the arms of two beefy ladies with eyes the size and demeanour of intensely scorched Tic Tacs. ‘You know her, then?’ ‘Yeah, I know her.’ ‘Well, who is she?’ ‘She’s a prick, that’s who.’ The woman in custody laughed and tried to wriggle free but the two who had her had her now, and after the chaotic display they had just witnessed, there was no hope in hell of them letting her go. ‘Tell us your name.’ It clearly wasn’t the first time of asking. ‘Her name’s Alfie,’ Mack grimaced, adding ‘she’s harmless.’ The ladies scoffed, giving off the sort of managerial air that only those who work in security are able to muster. Mack scowled. Having realised there was a family element to the proceedings he had been prepared to negotiate cordially but the two who stood before him on the great broad stone steps of the main hall; they were of a type he knew. They reeked of over-inflated ego, an excessive grip on their responsibilities, and a faux-intelligence learnt not through experience but from the manuals and help-guides that prioritised deescalation. Mack knew them from supermarket exits, from train station barriers, even from the library of all places. Most of all though, he knew them from the clubs, these hell-sent creatures who seemed to revel in the misfortune they had the power to dole out to others. The anger from years of being picked out for no reason, sent around the block stone-cold sober, and thrown out through double swinging doors bubbled up inside him. Someone’s go to do it, he knew. A thankless job, he was sure. These were real people, with real lives, he attested, they probably have families and a sweet dog at home. He knew, he knew, he knew it all. He sympathised and empathised and walked a mile in their shoes. And he hated them. ‘Do we have to call somebody?’ tooth-splayed one of the goons, with a condescending glint. Mack dived in, seeing the round open mouth of his sister forming bleeps and stars, offence having been considerably taken. ‘No. No, that’s alright, I think.’ Butted-out, Alfie recognised the diplomacy and scowled, hyena-like, sucking on her bleeding lip and giving Mack a look that bedevilled peace now, hellfire later. Later came fast, gunning along the busways through the city centre, turning, crossing without a crossing, turning, one striding ahead, the other half-jogging behind. Despite near-continuous protest from his foul-mouthed sister, Mack let up only when they found the Square, easing the marching orders to a more casual stroll. Not a casual stroll that you might take on a hazy, sunlight afternoon down by the river idyll, but casual whispered through gritted teeth when the blue lights flash on, casual when exiting and the cameras swivel overhead, casual when strolling past the parked car, the shadowy Lord inside both givething and takething away. Skirting around the outside to avoid the bike-menaces that clawed and roared their way through his otherwise peaceful world (not, he bitterly bemoaned), Mack paused before the corner of the next popular walkway and turned on the out-of-breath behind him. ‘What in the name of all that is good and right in this shit-storm of a world were you doing?’ ‘Talk about brotherly love.’ ‘Spare me.’ ‘Spare me, prick.’ ‘I fucking did, didn’t I?’ Pause to allow a group of passing tourists to go unsullied, then on, but she interrupted. ‘What’s that?’ ‘What?’ He looked down at where she had gestured with her chin. A package was tucked under his right arm. He stared. One corner slightly damp. He tried to remember where he’d picked it up, why it was important enough for him to have carried it all this way, for all this time. Nothing came, so he checked the label. ‘Knaresborough.’ ‘Isn’t that yours?’ ‘No. Yeah, Knaresborough, yeah.’ ‘Not yours?’ ‘No.’ They stood looking at the package, with its mould, its festering, its sickness holding their gaze like a wild animal. Mack felt his eyes glazing over, looked up at Alfie and saw hers going too. Of course, he thought, that’s where the poison came from. They didn’t hurt the concrete when they hit it, leaning and falling like the opening of a dirty man-trap flower blooming outwards, its drawbridge petals mirrored as they clanked to the ground. Grey pupils reflected pointless skies, trees swaying over their fading frames that slowly turned to dust and were buried under a mound in the Square’s centre, giving it a new name, new ghosts, new life. ‘Where are you taking it?’ Where was he taking it? Where did it want to be taken, he mused. ‘Listen, get out of here.’ ‘You kidding?’ ‘Go home, Alf.’ She stiffened at the word. Mack noticed. Something was off. ‘Not going home alone.’ ‘What? Where’s the Dane?’ It was a historical joke that their mum had made, the forever secretly disappointed intelligentsia that she was. Not Mack, nor Alf, nor the Dane himself understood it, but it had stuck for this long all the same. ‘Home alone.’ Something had been off for a long time. He tried to stop picturing the worst, though the crimes kept returning to his mind. ‘He’ll be alright,’ he reasoned, as well a thought-through argument as ever he’d given. ‘Fuck that, I’m coming with.’ The ground opened and swallowed her whole, liquid stones slipping softly around her neck so that only her head was left visible at pavement level. She cocked it. He groaned, whined, stamped his feet, pulled out his hair, and then pulled her up by hers. She grinned, the same wild eyes from the gallery. ‘Where we going then?’ ‘Murder,’ he muttered, ‘Murder most foul.’ So read the inscription carved above the door of their choice destination. A secluded underground spot, the portal opened off of an understated alley curling away from the busier road whose broad pavements were studded with shopping feet, paraphernalia feet, foreign feet, and half-sleeping bodies.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale