Saturday, October 01, 2011

From the Hearth

First published in the anthology BENEATH THE GROUND edited by Joel Lane (Alchemy Press 2003)


Only those who follow the story can understand how frightening the road they tread.  Susanna understood this when it was too late.  Following the road, she found it became a tunnel where the sky was worse than Hell.

            Today, though, she often wondered why the actual road where she lived was lower than the rest of them in an otherwise flat Essex town.  Whilst standing at its top corner, she could still see a range of chimneystacks sloping down into distance.  Perspective was everything.  Even the past had perspective.  She was a wild-witted girl of whom advantage could easily have been taken, had it not been, in those more innocent times, for an over-protective step-father.  An industrial working-class town where heads often nested in honestly persil-clean pillows, heads that sweetly squeaked and squawked, pretending that their bodies only existed for fondling.  Susanna's family was close-knit half the time, wildly ill-suited the rest.  Dysfunction with a purpose.  They tried to thrive on leisure, despite the work ethic that awaited them once they crossed the threshhold of the front doorstep straight on to the blurred chalk of the road's hopscotch lines.  Susanna's menfolk drew dole as if it were a throwaway sky-line where even angels (with oodles of self-righteousness) floated around painting pastel-shaded frescos upon otherwise ugly weather fronts.

            Tom was her half-brother.  Grizzled and grown-down to a tussock from a promising start as a stripling.  Pamela her real mother.  And, yes, her step dad, Donald, the one with the wide whiskers and wraparound beer brims.  His hat, too, was larger than life.  Played the snooker balls as if they were dam busters.  Which reminded Susanna that Tom was currently outside in the road scuffing his best shoes with yet another game of football amid his gnarled cronies of childhood.  Often kicking around a bristly youth called Hugger or, if Hugger were not available, a knurled mini-millstone—enough to jar even willowy calf-bones.

            Susanna had only a few god-given graces.  Anyway, lacking a finish to her breeding began to serve a purpose when her best friend happened to become a certain Lucy, a coincidentally separate individual, albeit one with sufficient similarity to engender inseparability.  Lucy was a red-eyed droopy-lip of a wench who seemed rather resentful of having only one best friend in the shape of Susanna.  Both yearned for the more meaningful companionship of the proud-looking sporties in an older class—those who wore gymslips like flags of war.  After all, it was wartime, and the most patriotic spirit in those days resided within such middle-of-the-road communities.

            Susanna and Lucy, therefore, by lack of other influence, were gradually attracted towards darker, direr affairs than polishing boys' faces.  Susanna had inherited, through some miscegenate unaccountability, books and papers from step-dad Donald's attic, an attic which seemed deeply unvisited because nobody else knew of its existence either by angle of exterior roof or potential of perspective.  Brother Tom and step-dad Donald had spoken of it, though, as if they suspected the existence of realms beyond man's understanding—spoke of it in barely audible words of one syllable (most of them mispronounced).  Yet, with inadvertent intention, the two girls were somehow directed towards this attic where they were to discover mouldy documents speaking of worlds even lower than the basement—a dark sphere of imputed eeriness more in keeping with the Gothic Humours than the workmanlikeness of the local trades.  Both girls were remarkably precocious as far as the written word was concerned if not in the more spoken sides of their physical nature.  The itches they needed to scratch they did more by reflex than salaciousness.  Their singing in unison was perfect. 

            In any event, some particularly mouldy words in the attic's documents spoke of toad creatures harbouring themselves beneath the town's China Factory ... stating that some of the more decorative crockery was based on fitful sightings of these creatures, creatures that had recently drawn too near the surface.  The fact of the factory workers' children being sent away, soon afterwards, was both a mystery and an all-too-clear sign that sirens were about to wail of war.

            The toad creatures, of which the attic's mouldy configurations told, were nurse-like to the bottom of their Earthen natures—so much so, the two girls yearned to visit them and gain an inkling of how properly to nurture others.  They did not want to grow up into the thrusting womenfolk they might otherwise have been destined to become during the more modern future. 

            At first, they delved along the road's alleyways that—according to the tracks the attic's tract told them to tread—traced a downward path, below the basement, to where the bravest toad creatures were said to prick their ears.  Susanna and Lucy tried to crack jokes and enact a life of hockey-sticks and mild matriculation to ward off any encroaching eeriness.  They had, indeed, since our first acquaintace with these two girls, become delegate Prefects at school—against the very base natures coursing through their inherited veins.  Both step-dad Donald and brother Tom had, independently, long since vanished on imagined forays in North Africa or towards the Antipodes.   Mother Pamela boiled soup interminably, often misrepresenting it as stew—a fact which caused Susanna to suffer from imputed anorexia before its time.  Lucy, too, loved to suffer with her friend and, thus, refused the more filling platefuls at her own home so that she could share the scraps and swill which mother Pamela dished up on faded and chipped crockery.  This thinness of diet, it was reported, allowed the two girls to squeeze through gaps others couldn't even see.

            There was a local belief which was so very local it was held solely in that part of the town or, even, just in Susanna's road itself.  Up was down.  Down was up.  Then was now.  Now was then.  Admittedly, it was the loose-lipped gossip of a belief which, perhaps, nobody fully construed.  This belief was often voiced abroad when digging the local allotment; probably in preference to War Talk proper which, as primary sources maintain, often did cost lives during that inimitable make-do-and-mend era.  It was as if Faiths grew and flourished from the very chimney smoke.  The cleaner the flues, the more that clarity prevailed.  The sootier, though, to the point where the smoke was close to becoming tangible curds of tar, crazy extrapolations were spoken with the straightest possible faces.  The darker it was, the dafter the beliefs became.

            It has already been known that there was a boy called Hugger—a village idiot with no village to call his own.  He saw two extremely thin girls but wondered whether he was seeing double because, in his eyes, different parts of the town shimmered out of perspective with each other and most roads felt as if they were already underground.  He promised to accompany them, on the final foray, after several dress rehearsals, to the very cellar where he told himself (if in different words) that the tops of some of the toads were embedded in the concrete like turnips.  How Hugger knew about the mouldy parchment in Susanna's attic was never satisfactorily explained but that was because the girls forgot they had already told him to keep this a secret, there being a requirement for someone else to keep the secret to make it a better secret, a secret worth keeping.  The more who knew the secret ... well, there was an optimum level before the secret was officially out.  And there being three of them was certainly enough to make it a secret more secret than most.  By leading them down, Hugger was merely re-enacting a story he thought he'd already been told.  This was where the frights let themselves be known, irrespective of any force wielding such frights.  Fear came from not being warned or even propely made to be afraid.  Fear was strongest where there was nothing of which to be afraid.  It can be sensed only in words, not in deeds, activities or even threats.  Especially not in any real atmosphere of darkest horror.  Intimations of a wicked reality were scarier than even that wicked reality itself could be.  And the sense of fear grew and grew, merely as the words grew and grew, as Hugger, in the guise of a Sweep, led his water babies down to a deep cellar of chimneys-tops, their pots sticking up from the ground whence cataracts of smoke churned and choked.

            "Hold my hand, Hugger."

            Susanna could hardly see him in the gloom beneath the imputed floorboards.  Lucy could hardly see her own face in front of her hand.  Hugger could see neither of them—though often he lived up to his nickname and gave them childish sooty cuddles to guarantee their presence.  He had shown them how to lift the trap which revealed the dizzy steps and, wordlessly, he made them follow through ... a quest which, until they knew its meaning, held no meaning at all.

            "Toad creatures, they are what the attic mould foretold," thought Susanna.  Lucy even said it ... with a short sharp laugh to relieve the impending terror ... but Hugger was uncharacteristically quiet, his hunched shape growing darker and darker as it led the way ... holding the sweet fingers he thought to be a girl's. 

            Earlier, the three of them had gone into a huddle and discussed the quest.  If this is being heard (as opposed to being read), one may already have overheard their mindless, middling lightness of laughter.  The words were spoken in between, as if learned parrot-fashion from someone more omniscient than themselves:

            "There seems to be an awesomeness, almost a religion..."

            "Yes, yes, the war has angels you know ... many think they see them in the sky as if the gas ovens give birth to birds as well as to dry stews..."

            "What's all that to do with the toad creatures, Hugger?"

            He turned and spoke as if he spoke for the very first time: "The attic mould must have blotted the paper there ... and 'toad' may have to be read as 'road' to get the full sense."

            "Road creatures, Hugger?"

            "Yes, Man is naturally the wanderer, the refugee..."

            Susanna and Lucy nodded in unison.    The talk went on for hours.  Mother Pamela could be heard shifting beds upstairs.  The monochrome snapshots of step-dad Donald and brother Tom in their gold-tooled holders glinted in the semi-blackout which the world still allowed.

            Meanwhile, the trio of shadows—bordering on silhouettes—delved deeper into the bowels of the road.  Hugger knew he was almost alone.  His mind came to the forefront, if only by some false perspective.  Always destined to be the protagonist, he drew sympathy and identification.  Hugger was a hero, not an idiot.  The girls were just two of the Song-Lines he followed.  He loved their legs and the growing shapeliness of their being.  He had watched them fondling each other, when they thought nobody could see.  Love was often like that.  He wondered, as a strange non-sequitur, about the aboriginal heart of the matter ... as he negotiated the lowest reaches that Mankind could ever reach without Hell itself kicking in.

            The darkness was wet to the touch.  The girls had now re-established themselves with a growing provenance, relegating Hugger to a corner of their consciousness.  The ground was littered with human heads, the blackness blurring their various racial leanings.  The girls somehow knew, without being told, that the rest of bodies below the heads were embedded vertically below even this furthest reach of surface existence, their various legs stretched out in wide frozen stride or mean limp.  The girls watched Hugger start kicking these heads to check how well the necks prevented them from becoming separate footballs.  The resultant cracks, throbs, bleats and squelches thankfully filled the girls with more wholesome thoughts, visions, even, of the toad creatures they'd originally hoped to see—honest-to-goodness horrors which would have made them shudder with mere fright or simple disgust

            Susanna woke with a start.  A siren wailed far off.  The first of many.  She heard Tom, Donald and Pamela scuttling to the basement air-raid shelter.  But she stayed in the safety of her own bed, hugging her knees as if that would ward off an inevitable past.  Flashes, as if passing under chimneys of light in an otherwise endless tunnel of nightmare, made her dark shape fitfully invisible.  Lucy had failed to return to any degree of visibility at all, however.  Never hugged her own curvy ley-lines.  Never been told the frightening story in the first place.

            Listen, though, and you will hear your own black heart.  You don't need ears for that.

No comments: