Thursday 18 April 2013

Dark Fiction - By Proxy

Dark Fiction Image

By Proxy

By Casey Douglass

Bent over lower than needed to avoid banging his head, he scrabbled around trying to coax the four large collapsible boxes into a shape that was conducive to being wedged under one arm. Finally corralling them together and shoving them into his armpit, he slammed the car-boot down harder than he would have liked and dashed for sanctuary through the rain, the blip of the car alarm system enough surety that the car would still be there when he returned.

He dashed up the steps, his feet sliding on the dark mossy concrete, but he trusted to his own momentum to see him safely to the top. The large black door at the summit swung open as he approached, a wrinkled face peering out at the lashing rain, its mouth falling open as it saw the hurtling shape coming towards it. The door was wrenched fully open and Bradley gratefully stumbled inside, the boxes finally slipping from his underarm and shooting over the polished parquet floor like a strange poker hand being dealt to a giant. He bent over and panted, the sound of the inclement weather finally muffled as the door snapped shut behind him. He turned to thank his saviour but before he could speak a mottled hand was thrust into his.
‘Christ mate, you’re optimistic!’
‘I’m an all or nothing kind of guy I guess,’ Bradley smiled as he shook hand. ‘I’m Bradley Joiner, I’m here to empty my dad’s flat.’
‘Oh yeah I reckoned that, what with the boxes and all. I’m Arthur White, I live...lived next door to your dad. You got a key?’
Bradley patted himself down and felt the slight clinking in his left jacket pocket. ‘Yes the police gave it to me after I identified the body.’
Arthur grimaced and put his hand on Bradley’s shoulder. ‘It must be hard.’
Bradley shook his head. ‘Not really. We didn’t get on or have much in common. He was a bit like a stranger to me. That might sound cold but it’s just how it is.’
‘No not at all mate. Families can be overrated at the best of times. They are fine when they all get along but when they don’t they can be worse than enemies. I got a brother I don’t speak to so you are peaching to the choir...squire!’ Arthur’s face wrinkled as he erupted in laughter.
‘Well, it was nice to meet you Mr White, but I really should get on.’
Arthur snorted as he tried to subdue his own amusement. ‘You’ll need more than those few boxes.’
‘Oh I don’t doubt it. Its just a preliminary blitz through at the moment, the rest can be sorted through next week when I can get the time off work.’
‘Even so...’
‘You’ll see. Anyway, follow me, I’ll take you to the door.’
Bradley stooped and retrieved the rain spotted cardboard from the floor before looking up and seeing the back of Arthur vanish around a bend at the top of the stairs. Swearing under his breath he jogged up the stairs, wondering why he had the luck of having the sprightliest old man in London as his guide.
‘Are you coming?’ the voice wafted around the corner.
‘Yes yes I’m coming,’ and in a softer voice, ‘you spry old coot.’
Gaining the landing, he turned right and saw Arthur leaning out of a doorway and pointing to the next one along. ‘It’s that one! Good luck!’
The old head disappeared and the door closed with a sharp crack. Bradley traipsed slowly along the hallway, the air full of the smell of rain from the small window that was open a crack at the very end. Reaching the indicated door, he fumbled for the key and unlocked the shiny black wooden door. He stared up at the large number seventeen artfully placed two thirds of the way up, the bottom tip of the number one starting to rust slightly. He hesitated before he opened it, his right hand trembling a little. He pressed his hand to the door, the cold wood making his palm go cold and tingly.

He breathed out and pushed. The door gently and easily started to swing open before suddenly stopping with a dull thump. Bradley pushed hard against it but the door was blocked from the other side. He dropped his boxes once more and pushed his head through the gap in the open doorway.
‘Holy shit!’
He heard muffled laughter through the wall to his left. The old coot no doubt. He shook his head as he surveyed the scene. Books everywhere! Tall piles stacked from floor to ceiling, lining the hallway of the small flat. Looking down, he saw that a couple of piles had toppled over, probably after the police had left as he couldn’t imagine they could have removed the body otherwise. He strained against the door but was unable to get it to budge. Muttering, he squeezed himself into the gap and slowly pushed his way through. Once on the other side he kicked the blockage away, he certainly wasn’t going to be squeezing through twice.

He turned again and just stood and stared, his chest feeling tight with a feeling that mirrored the constrictive space in the hallway. Slowly, he walked forward, his eyes half roaming over the book spines, those at least, that were angled the right way. Travel books, self-help, history, cooking, religion, it was all there. He smiled and ran a finger along some of the stacks, excitement tickling his stomach. He sighed happily,‘So many books!’
He eased one out of the pile to his right and flicked through it eagerly, the ins and outs of psychology laid bare. He extricated another from further down, the process of hypnosis explained in laymen’s terms! He set them on the floor and carried on, cherry-picking the ones that excited him and made him want to sit and read them on the spot. His teachers had always joked that he was the true definition of a bookworm, and he certainly felt at home in this tunnel of paper. He remembered sitting on the floor of his first bedsit, a blanket around his shoulders and the wind blowing through the ill fitted window. Aslong as he had a book in his hand, he didn’t mind one little bit.
He heard a faint chime from a clock, either deeper in the flat or next door’s, and checking his watch found that almost half an hour had passed. He tutted as his eyes finished sliding down one last pile and briskly walked on. He reached the first opening to another room and sheepishly looked inside. It was a bedroom, the bed giving testament to that. Around it on almost every side, simply books books and more books. He reached another room. Books. Floor to ceiling. He wondered how the floors could take the weight? The deeper he moved into the flat, the more the smell of the ageing paper got into his nose. He didn’t mind the smell, but such a quantity was making his nose tickle. He reached another room and let out a small grunt and smiled. The kitchen was free of books and remarkably clean. ‘Just when I thought I had you sussed old man.’
The final room was the dark lounge. Bradley walked in slowly, the smell of books mingling with something else, something more clinical. He moved slowly to the large heavy curtains and opened them fully, letting the meagre light of the day intrude into the dim room. The books in this room looked newer, their paper white and crisp rather than yellow and flaking. Neat stacks dotted the room, culminating around the plush easy chair that had its back to the large window. It put him in mind of a city of small skyscrapers ruled over by whoever sat in the chair. Dad’s world.
His eyes settled briefly on the missing seat cushion that made the chair look barren and emptier than it should. The police said that they had taken it away as it was contaminated. They had found him sitting there, a half open book clenched in his arthritic hand, his reading glasses still pinched tightly to his nose.
Bradley leant forward and put his hands on the back of the chair, partly to steady himself, partly to reassure himself of the reality of what had happened. That last book that his dad had held was still open to the left of the chair. Bradley stooped and picked it up, curious about what it was that his dad had been reading. “Animal Husbandry for fun and profit.”
Bile shot up the back of his throat as he looked around the room once more. He’d known this. He had been there. All that effort when he had left the bedsit, to throw out and give away his old books, the hooks that they had in his mind so hard to sever. He knew it was the right thing to do then, he felt more free, less weighed down by the next book to read, and exposed, unable to hide from the experiences and seek sollace in mere theory. It had almost got him again! His mind chafed at how it had failed to remember that a few moments ago while he had stood worshipping at the stacks of his former Gods. Bradley threw the book across the room and thumped the back of the chair with his fist.
‘You fucking coward! You filled your flat with books about everything under the sun and never put any of it into practice. Animal husbandry? How the fuck would you have done that!’
Bradley marched out of the room, unsure at who his speech was really directed. His face felt hot and itchy, like ants running across his cheeks. He stormed allong the hallway, kicking the neat pile of books he had made as he passed it. He heard the thump of another pile of books crash down behind him but didn’t turn around. Slamming the flat door behind him, he strode to the end window on the landing, feeling the fresh breeze from outside on his face. Tears stung at the edge of his eyes.
‘Allot of books.’
He turned and scowled at Arthur who had appeared in his periphery.
‘You could say that.’
‘He was a nice man...from what I knew of him.’
‘I don’t imagine that was much.’
‘He kept to himself to be sure, but was always willing to take in parcels, or help out if asked. He never did no one any harm, as far as I know.’
Bradley sighed. ‘That’s probably why we didn’t get on. He was nice, he was helpful, but he expected life to just give him what he wanted. He was a dreamer. Like me. I moved on though.’
Arthur nodded sagely.
Bradley pointed back at the flat door. ‘Those books in there aren’t just books, they are his dreams, dreams that he trifled with and then shelved, moving onto the next flight of fantasy, never getting anywhere,’ Bradley said, a shiver running through him.
‘There is more to life than achievement though.’
‘Yes of course, there is the social side, community, taking part in the world, but none of that applies here. He holed himself up against life like someone stockpiling for the end of the world, more content to live in his thoughts than put in any effort.’
Arthur shrugged. ‘I don’t know what to tell you. You probably knew him better than I did. All I’ll say is there are worse things in life than to live how your dad lived.’
The two of them stood and looked past each other for a long moment, neither moving or making eye contact. Finally, Arthur smiled and said, ‘Cuppa?’
‘No, thank you though. I think I’m done for now.’ Bradley offered Arthur the key. ‘You like books?
Help yourself. I don’t need them...,’ he said as he walked away, the hard soles of his shoes squeaking on the polished floor, ‘...any more.’