Next thing I'm aware of is Mum shaking me by the shoulders.
“Robert,” she says gently.
At once I'm in action mode, it can't be more than three seconds before I'm bolt upright, pencil in hand.
“Room,” I write in my dream diary. “Small, cosy, warm, not unlike my bedroom.”
“People: me, Mum. Atmosphere: everyday, normal. Colours: pale but bright, morning colours.”
Mum gets up and opens the curtains. It is bright. In fact, it is morning.
I grab for my dock, focus. Focus again.
“You set the alarm for three am,” says Mum. “You silly chump.” She smiles, touches me lightly on the head.
“Lucky I noticed, eh?” says my mother.
I fall backwards on to the bed. She re-set the alarm. She re-set the alarm! I don't believe it. I pull the duvet over my head.
“Come on now,” she says, “seven-thirty. Chop chop.”
I wail, I moan, I thump the mattress. Then I get dressed.
“I'm on lates,” says Mum over breakfast. “Do you want me to walk
you to school?”
“You don't have to go yet,” she says.
It's twenty to nine. The journey to school - via The Dog Leg - is about five minutes. “I like being early”, I say “I get to use the computers.” Actually Mr Biddulph doesn't get in till nine-thirty and the computer room is locked like Fort Knox. But Mum doesn't know that.
“I’ll get you a computer one day,” she says. “I’ll save up”
“I didn't mean that.”
“I know you didn't, love.”
I peck her quickly on the cheek and go out the back way. As I shut the patio gate, I wave and then turn as if l was going in the direction of The Dog Leg.
Only the locals call it The Dog Leg. Its real name is the Cut, because that's what it is, a zig-zag passage that acts as a short cut between The Lane and Stanhope Avenue. Some people say it's called The Dog Leg because that's how it's shaped - like the back leg of a dog. Personally, I think that would make for one pretty deformed dog. The passage goes twenty yards east, then right-angles north for ten yards, then sharp east again for another ten and finally sharp north before coming out into daylight under the arch of two Stanhope Avenue houses, which are joined at the second floor level like some architectural Siamese twins. Other people say the passage is called The Dog Leg because that's what happens there. Dogs lift their legs. At the lamp-posts. If only they knew.
There are two lamp-posts, not the concrete sort you see in ordinary streets, with the lozenge of orange light at the top, but ones that look as if they've come out of Narnia. Old-fashioned, fluted metal lamp-posts in pale green surmounted by hexagonal glass lamps which glimmer with that soft gas mantle light. Sticking out horizontally, just below the lamp itself, is a fluted green metal arm with a bobble on the end, which looks like a place you might hang a coat if you were given to hanging your coat on a lamp-post. Alternatively, if you were given to climbing lamp-posts this would be an excellent place to sit. It's where Niker sits. Niker climbs like a spider.
I didn't see him the first time, even though he was directly in front of me. I suppose that's because I was going along with my head at the five-foot level and he was perched another five foot above that. So when the first apple landed I thought it was just Norbert bad luck. Because, as it happens, there is this large Bramley apple tree on the first bend of the passage. In any case I wasn't exactly thinking of apple as ammunition, just apple as fruit, and fruit does occasionally fall off trees and hit people on account of the laws of gravity. So it was only when the second apple landed, squidgy and rotten and directly on my head, that I thought to look up. Or maybe it was the laugh that made me look. He's quite a good marksman, Niker, and I think he hit me another four times before I managed to in the corner. Afterwards, as I scraped the gunge off my coat with a stick, I wondered why I hadn't thought to return fire. But I think I would have missed anyway.
Of course the next time I went via The Dog Leg I checked the lamp-post (which you can see from the entrance) before going in. Only that time he was up the second lamp-post, the One you can't see until you turn the middle bend. This post doesn't have a convenient apple tree near by. So he had a plastic bag. He was wearing gloves and he threw something loose and brown that splatted on the back of my neck. I thought it was mud - until I breathed in. When I got to school I washed it out of my hair, but the smell was still on my collar.
“Norbert,” Niker said at Break. “Did anyone ever tell you, you stink?” He was sitting on the playground wall next to Kate, who was swinging her legs and eating a cheesestring. “You should take a bath.” He jumped off the wall into a puddle, soaking me, but also himself.
“E-jit,” Kate said and laughed.
As soon as I got home that afternoon I changed and stuffed my shirt at the bottom of the laundry basket. But Mum has a nose like a bloodhound.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I fell over.”
“On your back?”
“In a pile of dog muck?”
“Yes, Mum, I fell over on my back. In a pile of dog muck. People
do, you know.”
I'm not saying I wasn't scared. The Dog Leg's a spooky place anyway Mum says it's not mortar that holds the walls together but graffiti. And the more often our neighbours creosote their back gates the more elaborate the spray painting get. It makes the houses looked marked, as if all the victims from the Great Plague ended up with homes backlog on to the Cut. And then there's the broken glass and the smell of urine - and I don't mean dog urine either. Because dog urine doesn't smell, does it? And even though the passage is a perfectly ordinary path made of perfectly ordinary concrete, footfalls really echo there. There always seems to be someone behind you, or coming towards you. It's difficult to locate exactly where someone else is in the passage until you re right on them. Or they're on you. But then it should be safe because so many people use it: dog-walkers, shoppers, business people on their way to the sandwich shop, everyday grown-ups going about their everyday business. So maybe it is only me that smells fear there.
The apple-throwing happened in the autumn. And it wasn't until the summer that Niker devised the grape thing. There were two new boys in class that term, Jon Pinkman and Shane Perkiss, Pinky and Perky and he did it to them too. So it wasn’t just me. I wasn't the only one. Pinky only stayed one term.
Anyway, I don't want to talk about that now I just want to explain why it is that I head south today - towards the sea - instead of east towards school. It's one of about seven routes I use. I never decide in advance which way I'm going to go on the basis that Niker still manages to intercept me on an unnerving number of occasions, so he either has to be psychic or he's put some sort of implant in my brain. If it's the implant then I reckon he can't know where I'm going until I know where I'm going, so the later I decide the less time he has to get there before me. You could call it paranoid, but then anyone whose been through The Dog Leg with Pinky and Perky and a bunch of grapes has the right to be paranoid.
I make my route decision the moment I let the back-gate latch fall. Click - I'm going to the sea. Click - I'm going past the Library Only, to be honest, I do choose the sea more often than the other routes, because I love the sea. Especially in winter. Sometimes, when it's really rough, the sea throws pebbles on to the promenade, and walking there is like treading on fists.
Today I choose the sea, but I don't go as far as the prom, Just down to the main road (where I stand a moment to look at the colour of the waves) before turning inland again. It doesn't really matter which of the northerly roads I take, Occam, The Grove,St Aubyns, they all arrive pretty much at the gas works and then it's just a few hundred yards to school. Today I select St Aubyns, which is a wide, ugly street with gargantuan four-floor buildings, most of which have now been turned into guest houses. One of them is called the Cinderella Hotel. It has a flight of ballroom-type steps up to its huge front door. And I'm looking, as I always do, for the glass slipper, when my eye is drawn to the building next door. It's a colossal edifice, grim, square, semi-derelict. And, painted in gold on the glass above the boarded front door, are these words: Chance House, 26 St Aubyns.
I read the words and then I read them again. After which I shut my eyes, turn a full cycle, and open my eyes again. The words are still there. As they must have been every one of the hundred times I’ve walked up this street.
“You can go there. Walk. It's not far.”
And of course I know it's Edith Sorrel's house because it is precisely what I have been expecting. It's the place I saw before I slept last night, the one I pretended to imagine. The one I knew was here but, perhaps, would rather not have known, which is why I suppose I chose to hear Edith Sorrel say “St Albans” when her clear-as-a-bell voice actually said, “St Aubyns.”
Do you sometimes feel drawn and repelled in the same moment? I call it the car-crash mentality - you don't want to look but you just can't help yourself. Even though you know you are going to see something appalling. Well, Chance House is my car crash. I've tried ignoring it but it won't go away. So now I'm going to have to look. Worse than that, I'm going to have to go in, though every sensible fibre in my body is willing me to walk away
There are two bits of good news. One is that I have to be at school in less than ten minutes. The other is that Chance House is boarded up. And I don't just mean with a few nails and a bit of chipboard. Each of the eight-foot ground-floor windows has been secured with a sheet of steel-framed, steel-meshed fibreglass. The front door is barricaded with a criss-cross of steel bars, and although the second-floor windows are not obstructed, they are twenty foot from any hand-hold I can see. Of course it could be different around the back.
I look up the road and then down the road. No-one is watching. No-one I can see anyway. I slip into the shadow of the side of the house. Grass sprouts through the concrete paving. There's a small door, set into the wall of the house about four foot above ground level. It's not barred but it doesn't look like it has to be. There are no steps to it, and as well as being overgrown with brambles, its swollen shut, totted into its doorframe.
I advance, slowly, towards the back of the house, as if I'm scared of the corner. As if I expect someone to be lying in wait, just out of view. My heart pounds as I walk. But I can't stop now. I come to the edge of the house, just one more step, I turn…
The garden is empty, overgrown. There are dandelions in the long grass. Bluebells and a smashed white-wine bottle. The sun is remarkably warm. I compose my breathing. There is steel mesh on the first window. And on the second. There is no way I will be able to get into the house.
And then I see it. French doors on to the garden. The mesh hanging free, tipped from the wall as if it were paper.
I don't know who's moving my legs but I'm going towards that open door. Walking fast now, past the dirty Sainsbury's bag and the length of washing line, past the patch of scorched earth where someone has lit a fire. Of course if the door is open there will be people. Squatters, vagrants, drug addicts. Who knows? My heart's back at it again. Bang, bang, bang. Like my rib cage is a drum. What am I going to tell these people? That I've come because some batty old lady asked me to? I should be creeping, slithering along the walls like they do in the movies. But I'm not. I'm walking with the boldness of the bit-part guy who gets shot. Somebody screams, and for a moment I think it's me. But actually it's a seagull, wheeling overhead.
My legs are still on remote control but there's something wrong
with my breathing. I seem to have lost the knack of it. I instruct
myself to breathe normally. In out, in out. The ‘out’ seems OK, but
the ‘in’ is too quick and too shallow. How long does it take a
person to die of oxygen starvation anyway? In out, in out. I've come
to the door. In.
Scrape, scrape, scrape. Pause. Scrape.
It's coming from my right. From the small kitchen window over the absent sink. This window is almost opaque, darkened by the steel-mesh glass and the shadow of some bush or tree that's growing too close to the house.
Scrape. Pause. Scrape.
I see the finger now. And the knuckle - which looks deformed. But perhaps that's just the trick of the light, the refraction of bone through fibreglass. My heart is beating like a warrior drum. Tom tom tom tom tom tom. But I'm not going to panic. I'm emphatically not going to panic.
I leap out of the room into the garden.
I scream: “I can see you!”
A holly bush continues to scrape one of its branches against the glass of the kitchen window. Scrape. Pause. Scrape. In time with the wind.
I'm so relieved I sob. Huge foolish tears rolling down my cheeks. Norbert No-Brain. Norbert No-Bottle. At least Niker isn't here to see. Or Kate. When the boo-hooing stops I look for a hanky. But I don't have one so I pick a dock leaf and blow my nose on that.
Right. That's it. I’m going back in. I make for the glass door. I
stride there, kick the brick out of the way and go through into a
thin corridor. Then I worry about the brick. If anyone sees the
brick's been moved, they'll know someone's in the house. I go back
out into the kitchen (which, compared with the corridor is light and
airy and pleasant) and retrieve the brick. Then I discover I can't
shut the door with me on the inside and the brick on the outside. Or
I can, just, if I squeeze my fingers around the gap between door and
doorpost, edging the brick back into place. Hang on, what if someone
jams the brick right up against the door, barricading me in? Change
of plan. Better to have the brick on my side of the door after all.
That way at least if someone comes in from the garden, they'll knock
it over getting into the house and I’ll hear them. I bring the brick
in, lean it against the door my side. Now I'm safe. If the people
I look at my watch. Six minutes to nine. I really have to get to school. Absolutely can't be late. Have to go right now. The skirting board in the corridor has been tipped off. There's a gap between the base of the wall and the floorboards through which I can see down to some sort of basement. In the dark cavity there are flowerpots, lamp bases, lamp shades, a desk, a filing cabinet and a sink, the old ceramic sort. There's also the sound of water. Not a small drip drip, but a gushing, the noise of a tap on full bringing water pouring from a tank. Or maybe a cistern filling, or a bath emptying or…
It's the brick. The brick has fallen. I wheel around, catch my foot in the hole in the floor, fall, twist my ankle, drag myself up, never once raking my eyes from the swinging door. But nobody comes through. Nobody comes through! Why don't they come through! I'm not an impetuous person, but I burst through that door, hopping across the kitchen faster than normal people run. And then I'm in the garden, and actually my ankle’s all right, so I do run. Run, run, run - flowers, washing line, burnt ground, smashed glass, corner of house, swollen door, front wall. Front wall of Chance House. Safety of St Aubyns. I collapse on to the pavement.
“Run rabbit run rabbit, run, run, run.” A familiar voice croons softly above me. “Don't be afraid of the farmer's gun.”
I look up. About a hand's breadth from my head is a pair of feet.
“Hello, Norbert,” says Niker.
He swings himself down from the wall.
“You want to watch yourself.” He brushes imaginary specks of dust from his trousers. “Bad place, Chance House.” He smiles.
“Bad place, Norbert. Bad house. Bad karma.”
He looks at my blank face. “You don't know, do you? Everyone in town knows. But you don't.” He turns towards school.
He pauses. “Yes, Norbert?:
“Please. Pretty please, Norbert.”
He looks at me pityingly. “A boy died in there, Norbert.”
“What boy? Who?”
“Just a boy, Norbie. Pasty little thing, by all accounts. Fluffy hair. Pale. Pocked. Bit like you, really. But his mum couldn't see it. Doted on him, apparently. Told him he was wonderful. So wonderful he could fly. So what does he do? Opens the window of the Top Floor Flat and gives it a go. Pretty nasty mess on the concrete by all accounts.”
“Top Floor? Top Floor Flat, Chance House? Are you sure?”
“You feeling all right, Norbert?”
“Niker, are you sure?”
“Higher the window, more the strawberry jam. Lots of strawberry jam in this boy's case, Norbert. Top Floor Flat for certain.” He grins. “Come on now, bunny, you’re going to be late for school. Better hop it, eh?”
I remain sitting on the pavement.
“Suit yourself.” He turns away.
As I watch his retreating back, the little swagger in his step, I want to believe it's all just a story. One he's made up to frighten me. But I know what's really frightened me is Chance House itself. You see, it smells like The Dog Leg. It smells of fear.